Sophia’s (for brunch)
Sophia’s (for brunch)
81 Market St., Portland, (207) 879-1869.
Brunch runs Sun., from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
To add another brunch option to Portland, Maine, would be to laugh in the face of conventional wisdom, which says that there really are enough breakfast joints in the city. Obviously, though, conventional wisdom has never tried to get breakfast at 11 a.m. on a Sunday in August and waited in three different lines at three different restaurants before getting a table for two in some tight corner.
It is true that the glacial season has descended upon us, and the lines are fewer — for the time being. Not a lot of New York license plates anywhere but in the Fore Street parking lot these days, but then again, it’s a perfect time for us year-rounders to try out new spots without the fear of getting turned away. So, back to the city’s brunch scene, where an Old Port bakery has stretched its legs a bit — if it’s even possible for Sophia’s to get any more stretched.
Stephen Lanzolotta, Sophia’s owner, and Chef Rick Barbata, formerly of Rick’s as well as his own personal chef business, have added another dimension to the bakery’s multi-faceted mission. Part bakery, part restaurant, part art gallery, part library, part lecture hall, the purpose of your trip to Sophia’s will depend greatly on what time of day it is. Lanzolotta has grabbed headlines for his continuing lectures on the Da Vinci Code and its tangential association to diet, resulting in a holy shoot-down of the no-carb "solution" (you can purchase a "Body by Bread" T-shirt as a souvenir). He also, not coincidentally, sells beautiful rustic loaves of country bread and focaccia, and some of the best Italian pasties in the city, if not the state. You might catch him hauling his large, painted canvases up and down Middle Street as well, to be hung both in his and other Old Port galleries. But since, on an "Art Critic" scale of 1 to 10, I consider myself a –8, I won’t be discussing any of his pieces except to say they’re "pretty cool."
Sophia’s has served a modest lunch offering for years now, following the rustic theme with simple sandwiches, sausage, olives, and bread and cheese, and has extended that modesty to its brunch menu. There are 10 plates to choose from, the most complicated of which might be the Pane al Brache, what we would call French toast. This is two thick, almond-crusted pieces of their open-crumbed country loaf, soaked all the way through with egg, and fried to a rich caramel brown. They get right what most other "thick cut" French toast makers get wrong: The entire slice is moist, and cooked all the way through. It is served not with maple syrup — not a whole lot of sugar shacks in Puglia — but homemade fruit syrup: in our case, an extremely potent blueberry sauce.
On the savory side, the Salsicce e Erbazzone (oven seared seasonal greens and sausage) was served with hard polenta beautifully seasoned with just salt and pepper. The green was the hardy winter variety of kale, again just simply salted to bring out its slightly peppery and bitter characteristics. The sausage — not house-made, but purchased from the next best thing, Micuccis — was a Greek-style called Loukaniko, made with wine, herbs, and (most notably) orange zest. The sausages’ complexity complimented the kale and polenta, giving a potentially "just plain simple" plate enough zip to make it wonderful.
This is food that is fun to make, and Stephen and Rick are clearly having fun making it. Between orders they’re wandering the dining area, checking in on patrons and answering questions. It’s clear that Stephen loves to talk about food, and its effect on the human body — he himself was wearing a black "Body by Bread" T that morning — and makes a point to have fun engaging his customers about exactly what they ordered. Some items change week to week, such as the Pesce al Cartoccio (fish and vegetables baked in parchment) and the Verdure al Forno (brick-oven roast vegetables and potatoes), and the Pasticceria (pastry plate) changes with what’s being made when the restaurant turns back into a bakery.
You’d better pray they have lemon cups when you go.
The menu has more traditional breakfast items with an Italian edge, too, like the Frittata (open-faced omelet) and Vove Arrosto (free-range eggs, oven-roasted with toast or polenta), even a relative of the pancake in the Focaccia Dolce (rounds of focaccia dough topped with fruit sauce). You can further get the Italian feel by browsing through the various books on Italian art that are stacked around the room. An older couple flipped through some large coffee-table volumes while waiting for their breakfast to arrive, and reminisced about past days in Venice while dreaming about flying to Rome. Their dishes came — he got the Pesce — and then they got lost again, this time in their food as well as their memories, all sampling from each other to prolong the experience.
Andy King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org