by Rebecca Falzano
Photography François Gagné
European-style dining thrives off Portland’s beaten path
For husband and wife Bob and Laura Butler, the richness of life is measured in moments of good food and wine: The pleasing pungency of garlic. The texture of perfectly cooked pasta. The joy of a sauce done right. A sip here, a taste there.
To cultivate their fervent passion for food, the couple regularly journeys to Italy, where sightseeing is secondary to the culinary scene, where the European style of relaxed dining includes an accommodating but not overly doting server, where conversation and a meal go hand in hand, and where the stresses of life fade over candlelight. Together, with these travels in the back of their minds, they have brought the essence of Italy to their Portland eatery, Rachel’s L’Osteria. Named after Bob’s late grandmother, the restaurant has followed the Butlers from Rhode Island to Maine, and now occupies an unassuming storefront on Woodford Street, two miles away from its former location amid the hustle and bustle of the city’s Old Port.
While many business owners would covet a prime downtown location, the Butlers have learned from their time on Exchange Street. When they first moved to Maine, they opened Rachel’s Wood Grill in the heart of the Old Port. “We loved our time there, but we were both working in the kitchen at the time, and the restaurant was long and narrow. We felt a million miles away from our customers. Our regulars didn’t know who we were; they’d have to find us,” says Bob. When the couple moved into a former office building in a quiet neighborhood off the peninsula, they were pleasantly surprised. With a manageable thirty seats, Rachel’s L’Osteria is a two-person show: Laura is the one and only chef, while Bob handles the front of the house as the main server and sommelier. It’s a unique partnership, but one they have found successful in the six years they have been there. “It’s nice to have one person in front and one of us in the kitchen. It allows us face-to-face time with each of our customers,” says Laura.
While Bob is interacting with every customer who walks through the door, Laura is enveloped in the savory aroma of whatever she’s cooking behind the half-wall of the kitchen. Her journey as a chef began with her Italian family, and her skills were later honed when she worked for six years under renowned chefs Johanne Killeen and George Germon of Al Forno Restaurant in Rhode Island. Bob, on the other hand, began his career in the industry in a decidedly less conventional manner: he operated a hot dog cart for seven years. “It was the best job I ever had,” he says with a smile. “I had 800 outdoor seats,” he jokes.
A year after they met, in 1991, the couple opened up Rachel’s in Rhode Island. Three years later, they traveled south with the intention of moving there, but found the region’s cuisine wasn’t well suited to their tastes. “We came about one inch from opening a restaurant in South Carolina,” says Bob, “But it was a very different atmosphere down there. One night we ordered a veal choplet and they took the tenderloin out of it. I said, ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough!’” recalls Bob. The couple then made their way to Maine, where they had vacationed for many years, and Rachel’s was reborn.
When the topic of conversation turns to the Rachel’s menu, Laura launches into self-proclaimed “food mode,” discussing ingredients with such affection that you almost think she is talking about her children. Her favorites, of course, are bastions of Italian cuisine: herbs, tomatoes, pasta, garlic, olive oil. The menu offers seafood with an Italian touch (Casco Bay diver scallops over angel hair pasta with mushrooms in a vin santo butter sauce or Portuguese shellfish stew with steamed clams, chouriço sausage, lobster tail, and scallops) and pasta mainstays (angel hair in a light tomato broth with fresh seafood or four-cheese ravioli tossed with gorgonzola, spinach, and toasted walnuts). Occasionally an entrée will be served with an Asian twist; for example, the seared tuna with fried risotto and crabmeat.
No matter what Laura is whipping up in the kitchen, though, her first love will always be pasta. “I love to make it. I think great pasta defines a restaurant. It’s about achieving the perfect balance of al dente and just enough sauce,” she says. Laura changes the menu every few weeks based on the seasons—or when she gets tired of making something. And while she prefers to stick to the menu, the environment at Rachel’s is relaxed enough that she is open to doing substitutions for customers. Although she has one strict rule: “I will not separate sauce from pasta. You don’t need me to cook for you if you want that,” she says with a smile.
While the lovingly selected menu is based on Laura’s passion for food, the carefully considered wine list remains Bob’s forte. The trips to Italy have helped fine-tune his growing love for Italian wine, and for the last five years Wine Spectator has recognized Rachel’s 250-label list. While the emphasis is on Italian wines and some older vintages of California Cabernets, small boutique wines also have their place on the list. Whether it’s the $130 bottle or the $23 bottle, Bob has a photographic recall when it comes to wine. “I can’t remember what Laura said five minutes ago, and yet I can remember a bottle of wine people came in and ordered six months ago,” he says. “It’s true,” says Laura. “He’s constantly changing the wine list, even more than I change the menu.”
Armed with his knowledge of wine and a warm, easygoing manner, Bob greets diners and explains the specials. True to the European style of service, he brings the wine and food and then fades into the background—available as needed, but largely unseen so his customers can enjoy their meals uninterrupted. “It’s not about the waiter making your night; it’s about the food and wine,” he says.
As the night wanes on, plate after plate moves from Laura’s hands to Bob’s. At the sight of a heaping bowl of pasta, one diner is worried she won’t be able to finish it. Bob reminds her that she can always take it home. It’s a routine he has gone through countless times before. Later, when he goes to clear the table, there is only a bite or two left—a clear testament to Laura’s prowess in the kitchen. From there you can hear her unapologetically explain the oversized portions: “I’m Italian, it’s in my blood. Eat! You’ll feel better!”