A Feel for Food and Place
FEAST – SEPTEMBER 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Benedetta Spinelli
Caiola’s neighborhood eatery satisfies the palate in style
Great chefs, it is said, cook by feel. They do not follow well-trodden recipes from the pages of a cookbook, but rather they dream up dishes from a deep, instinctual understanding of the subtle smells, flavors, textures, and visual appeals of food.
Not only does Chef Abby Harmon, the former executive chef of Portland’s much-admired Street & Company, cook from this place of deep intuition, but since Harmon and her partner Lisa Vaccaro leapt to open Caiola’s in Portland’s West End the pair has continually trusted their instincts.
While the restaurant has been successful ever since it opened in the early winter 2005, just as the first snows began to fall, nearly two years later Caiola’s menu continues to evolve, and the dining room grows cozier and more inviting—two things a regular might tell you are hard to improve upon.
Harmon and Vaccaro perfectly complement each other’s talents. At the “front of the house,” Vaccaro orchestrates the nightly theater of the dining room, overseeing the comings, goings, and comfort of the customers, which provides Harmon with the peace of mind she needs to toil in the kitchen at the “back of the house” and churn out new, imaginative menus on a daily basis.
Front of the House
When Vaccaro and Harmon both left their jobs and began searching out a home for Caiola’s, they trusted their instincts. It wasn’t a conscious decision to locate outside the crowded Old Port, but when they stumbled upon a space in Portland’s brownstone-filled West End, both agreed that it was ideal for the small neighborhood-style bistro they intended to name after Vaccaro’s mother and grandmother. While it was love at first sight when Harmon laid eyes on the diminutive 58 Pine Street location, Vaccaro admits today that she had reservations about how many tables they would be able to squeeze into the space—after all, it was Vaccaro’s job to set the stage for Harmon to create upon.
After leaving a 12-year stint in management at L.L. Bean, Vaccaro dove headlong into a demolition and renovation job that forced her to muster all of her carpentry and design skills. With a background in furniture building and custom carpentry, Vaccaro approached the design of Caiola’s by putting herself in the position of a diner, a role that she’s very familiar with. “Personally,” she says, “I hate feeling like I’m sitting right in the middle of a dining room.” With that in mind, Vaccaro divided the restaurant into several intimate, though not cramped, eating spaces. She built a series of roughly chest-high half-walls that give the dining room an easy flow and provide cozy nooks for diners to sink into. In the end, Vaccaro was able to create seating for 38 inside Caiola’s, and during the warmer seasons, a walled patio behind the restaurant pushes dining capacity to 70.
The strength of Caiola’s dining room comes from its lived-in feel. Vaccaro says that many of the little flourishes that make the dining room feel as though it’s been there for 100 years happened quite serendipitously. For example, when a weathered barn-beam that a friend donated for the renovation muddled Vaccaro’s work area, she lopped it in half just to get it out of the way. But when Vaccaro saw how handsome the piece of worn wood looked standing on end, she quickly decided to use it as a post on one of the half-walls. Nearly the same thing happened when Vaccaro leaned a couple of metal garden gates she had found at Portland Architectural Salvage against another half-wall: they too were built into the walls. Throughout Caiola’s dining room, Vaccaro’s decision to blend in salvaged materials brings a timeless quality to the space. She crafted the restaurant’s tabletops from old wood reclaimed from a church on Munjoy Hill and from a razed hangar at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. The ancient-looking shelves that adorn one wall were built from an old beam Vaccaro found languishing in Caiola’s basement, and she used carved, wooden corbels from Portland Architectural Salvage for the shelf brackets.
Vaccaro and Harmon settled on the Pine Street location with the idea of creating a cozy neighborhood restaurant. And while they were renovating the space, long before they served a single dish, that dream began to materialize.
Vaccaro remembers how curious neighbors began wandering in through the open front door to see what was happening. Many people, Vaccaro laughs, ended up opining on the renovation and making suggestions about where a wall should go or how big the bar should be. “It was magical,” she says. “We got to meet half the neighborhood that way. And when we opened a few months later, all of those neighbors came in to eat.”
Harmon savors the sense of community that has blossomed around Caiola’s. “A lot of what we do here is about accommodating our customers,” she says. “They will lead you in all sorts of interesting directions—you just have to be open to it.” And Harmon is indeed open to it; she keeps items on the menu that regulars won’t let her take off, creates new dishes with the tastes of her audience in mind, and even shares her recipes—that is, when she actually stops long enough to write them down.
Caiola’s has become so comfortable, and the co-owners so well known for their welcoming nature, that people just don’t want to leave. Recently, a once-a-week regular pointed out to Vaccaro that he’s always amazed to see Caiola’s employees dropping by the eatery for dinner on their nights off. “That says a lot about a restaurant,” he said to Vaccaro.
Beyond the relaxed setting and comfortable relationships, what truly keeps the loyal customers coming back, and the new ones coming in, is the consistent quality of the daily-changing menu.
Back of the House
There is a sincere, quiet humility about Chef Abby Harmon. Born and raised in Cutler, a Maine fishing village south of the Canadian border, Harmon even downplays the story of how her interest in cooking was first sparked: she was working as a camp counselor during a summer break from college and thought that the camp cook, tucked away in the kitchen, had an interesting job. That’s it. No great epiphany, just a quiet moment that unlocked a creative side in Harmon that was waiting to be discovered.
Harmon’s first serious cooking gig came years later when, on a whim and looking to leave her retail job behind, she answered a classified ad for a line cook at the then-fledgling Street & Company. The ad read “No experience necessary,” so Harmon trusted her instincts and leapt at the opportunity.
Over the next 15 years, as Street & Company garnered a national reputation, Harmon rose through the ranks of the kitchen staff to become the restaurant’s executive chef. Though she’s been lavished with much praise for the food Street & Company produced, Harmon insists that cooking is a team effort. Even today, after two years of not just managing a kitchen but co-owning her own restaurant, Harmon is quick to share the credit for Caiola’s fine food with her talented staff, including sous chef Cory Beckwith and line chef Mike DeLoose. “I think cooking is a collective effort,” she says, “You have to get the right group of people together—that’s how you make beautiful food.”
Though Harmon’s skill in preparing fish has been much heralded, today she is drawing inspiration from the great food belt that runs through southern Spain, the Provence region of France, and Italy. Yet even while Spanish paella and dishes that utilize grano—the Italian grain that pre-dates the introduction of pasta—regularly make their way onto the Caiola’s menu, Harmon says her most inspired dishes make use of whatever ingredients are freshest that day. “If the mushroom guy shows up,” she says, “and the mushrooms look great, then something with mushrooms is bound to be on the menu that night.” The ability to improvise great dishes is often what sets superior chefs apart. “I’m constantly scrambling to change the menu,” Vaccaro quips, “as Abby keeps evolving it throughout the day.”
Over the past two years, Caiola’s fare has been lazily labeled by some as “comfort food.” Such a description does no justice to Harmon’s ability to coax subtle, flavorful complexities from traditional dishes. Harmon believes comforting food doesn’t have to be uninteresting food. Sure, Caiola’s menu includes the classic (and some would even say “comforting”) Caesar salad, but Harmon’s Caesar is topped with the surprise of fried spicy oysters. And her beer-battered mushrooms (another “comforting” dish) are served atop tender, lemony frisée lettuce and drizzled with a basil gorgonzola sauce. Because Harmon is so gifted in the art of layering flavors, her menus show no sign of growing the least bit uninspired or predictable.
The Whole House
A great dining experience is the cumulative effect of all your senses being stimulated in one glorious rush: first your eyes, then your nose, and finally your taste buds. This rush is why great meals become such memorable moments in our lives. Eating Caiola’s fresh, well-prepared food in their comfortable dining room is bound to feed not just your body but your soul, too.