With a packed van and plans to head west, the last thing on the minds of the owners of Caiola’s was sticking around the n eighborhood. However, as the pair prepared for their trip, a friend called and informed them that a space in the West End was going up for lease. "We thought to ourselves, if it's meant to be, it'll be there when we get back," said Lisa Vaccaro, co-owner and general manager of Caiola's. However, after much urging from their friend, Vaccaro and executive chef Abby Harmon were convinced to make an offer on the space at 58 Pine Street and, much to their surprise, it was accepted.
"We couldn't say no because we knew eventually this was what we wanted to do," said chef Harmon. "So, we just did it." The two put their travel plans aside and got to work creating Caiola's.
And after three-and-a-half years as the West End's neighborhood restaurant, the pair attributes much of the restaurant's success to a dedicated team of back- and front-of-the-house staff, many of whom have been with the restaurant since it opened in November 2005. This consistency in staff has contributed to the neighborhood atmosphere of the restaurant, said Vaccaro. "We have regulars, people who come in three times a week, who have a sense of ownership here and when they walk in the door, every server and kitchen person knows who they are," she said.
Developing the menu for Caiola's has been a collective effort, said chef Harmon. "You have a vision and you try to articulate it to the people cooking with you and everyone has a different opinion. It's a process of thinking it up and coming up with ideas and throwing it out there and seeing what's available."
Caiola's menu depends largely on what's available locally, she said. "Farmers will call and tell us they have a certain thing and then we figure out what we can do with it and some make it onto the menu and some don't," she said. Last year, for example, a farmer called excited about a large harvest of saskatoon berries, which take several years to bear fruit after planting. "He brought in bucket loads and I wasn't prepared, but we got on it and ended up with some great desserts and this year I can't wait to get them in," she said.
Harmon said much of her inspiration comes from her travels, with a strong influence from European countryside fare. Fortunately, she said, there are many similarities between Maine and some of her favorite European influences. Much of Caiola's menu is Sicilian-based, for example, with a focus on seafood dishes, which of course, are also readily available in coastal Maine. The Zuppa Di Pesce ($20.95), often referred to as a fisherman's stew, brings together shrimp, scallops, and mussels in a lobster and tomato broth, topped with basil aioli.
And while Harmon takes inspiration from European fare, she isn't hesitant to come up with her own interpretations. For example, in the beet tzatziki ($7.95), while certainly Greek-inspired, rather than being served with yogurt, the shredded red beets are soaked in yogurt and served on top of yellow beets with a garnish of feta cheese, olive tapenade, and cucumbers.
And as the owners of Caiola's continue to expand their menu, they also plan to expand their space. Vaccaro said in October they will begin construction on a private dining room, which will partially expand into the outdoor patio area and will seat about 30 people, more than doubling the capacity of their current private dining room. The expansion, they hope, will provide space for more neighbors to join.
Leischen Stelter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAIOLA'S |58 Pine St, Portland | Tues-Thurs 5:30-9:30 pm; Fri-Sat 5:30-10 pm; Sun brunch 9 am-2 pm | Visa, MC, Amex | 207.772.1110 | caiolas.com