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A nice gathering of great food spots has developed at the intersection of India and Middle streets at the bottom of Munjoy Hill. Of course there are some revered restaurants in this corner of Portland. But just as important to any neighborhood’s culinary gravity are places to grab good coffee, bread, cheese, wine, and dessert. India and Middle has those too, in the form of Micucci Grocery, Coffee by Design, Foodworks, and the new Two Fat Cats Bakery, creating the sort of area that Californians would call a gourmet ghetto.
It’s a label which, in that California way, manages to exploit the unfortunate living conditions of the destitute in the service of the cute lingo of self-congratulatory bourgeois bohemians. But hey, poor people have bigger problems to worry about, and "gourmet ghetto" feels oddly right. Besides, in our Maine way, even our gourmet ghettos manage to maintain a working-class authenticity.
The key to the working-class food vibe in the neighborhood is Micucci Grocery. There is a sort of inertial rightness to everything about Micucci, including the staff. The names on the cheeses here are not as fancy as some other places, but it’s some good cheese. The surprisingly tasty sharp domestic provolone might be the best deal in town, and the balls of fresh mozzarella are irresistible. The meats are just the sort that push Tony Soprano into nostalgia-induced panic attacks. The spices and vegetables on offer are the basics for a solid Italian meal — onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, parsley. There are delicious olive oils, good fresh loaves of bread, odd Italian cookies, a wonderful brand of gelati, and some great wines barely marked up. With the Portland Greengrocer’s recent amputation, Micucci is once again the best grocery in the city.
If Micucci is the key to the neighborhood’s working class authenticity, the recent addition of Two Fat Cats Bakery was the final push that made this gourmet ghetto come together. Kristen DuShane, who runs the place, is a product of Portland’s culinary aristocracy, having baked and cooked at Fore Street and Uffa before starting this venture with the folks who run Standard Baking. Nonetheless, she seems to have tapped into the neighborhood’s proletarian vibe in recreating the lost art of old-fashioned American-style baking.
Most good bakeries these days, including Standard Baking, take a French approach: good breads, croissants and rolls, dark coffee. Two Fat Cats is happy to stick to our sweeter side of the Atlantic, offering primarily a variety of cakes and pies. It’s a move that is so retro it is almost avant garde, and some of the offerings are so traditional you might never have heard of them.
You will almost certainly find them delicious. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth myself (it was hard for me to discern why their moon pie, for example, was better most other sugar bombs out there), but it is impossible to mistake how very good the pies are at TFC. In most hands pecan pie, for example, is essentially a thick corn syrup soup poured into a crust with nuts sprinkled on top. DuShane does a bourbon pecan that transcends the genre. The subtle flavor of bourbon moderated and added complexity to the sweetness without taking over the taste of the pie. There were plenty of pecans, and the crust was buttery, flaky, slightly sweet perfection. A slice of a pie made with apples and raspberries was equally good.
The neighborhood shops have begun to cross-pollinate. Two Fat Cats gets many of their supplies from Micucci’s wholesale business. DuShane even sat down with Alan Spear from Coffee by Design to create a special blend of coffee to sell at the bakery. In keeping with the place’s traditionalism, it’s a lighter, less overwhelming cup of the sort Americans drank decades ago. This blend is not really for me. My palate approaches coffee like shallow, pretty girls size up potential boyfriends — if I sense any hint of weakness I obsess about it, and then reject. I want big, strong, and dumb over thin and complex every time. But that is the beauty of a gourmet ghetto. I can walk just half a block and get exactly what I want.
Brian Duff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: December 9 - 15, 2005
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