322 West Gray Road - Gray, Maine 04039 (map)  
DiSanto's Restaurant
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Portland Press Herald

DiSanto's charms with top-flight Italian-American classics

September 13, 2009

Lounge GRAY — Every town needs a place like DiSanto's Restaurant, where a plate of al dente pasta and red sauce singing about tomatoes and herbs proves Italian comfort food is supreme.

Set in a grove of spiffy landscaping cared for by owner Anna DiSanto, this is a modest place with modest prices that flaunts brash sunny flavors in its sauces, olive oil and tangy vinegar. The servers are friendly, quick and unfailingly pleasant, accommodating a move to an empty booth and retrieving an itemized receipt with smiles.

Anna DiSanto opened her restaurant in May 2007, but the journey toward her own business started when she was 8 years old and her grandmother handed her an apron, starting her work in the kitchen. Her grandmother and grandfather ran Anjon's original restaurant in Scarborough between 1954 and 1976.

Anna DiSanto worked in the later version of Anjon's for 27 years, learning the business from the bottom up before deciding to start her own.

"One of our favorites here is veal Parmigiano," she said.

She said customers often ask her, "Do you have the real veal?" They are grateful to learn that the classic dish is made with a pounded-out veal cutlet and not a veal patty.

One of her appetizers allows you to sample three meatballs or sausages made in-house. Served in a small oval dish, the tender sausages ($9) covered in the irresistible and savory meat-based tomato sauce, were delightful, with a good rough texture and excellent flavor.

We encountered the tomato sauce again with sides of pasta accompanying the entre course, an Italian-American tradition. Jammy with tomato and redolent of oregano and basil, the sauce tended to steal the show from both the pasta and sausages. The crusty, light white bread made here is good for mopping it up.

Metal chairs with upholstered backs and seats are set beside tables covered with tablecloths. Three booths along a back wall are cushier and more spacious. Large candles set atop a divider give a little festivity to the room.

A glass of Farnese Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($6.50 a glass or $24 a bottle), from Abruzi, Italy, is an Italian party wine if there ever was one – light and easy to drink. The wines tend to be less expensive, mainstream brands such as Cecchi Chianti Classico ($7 a glass, $30 a bottle) and Clos du Bois Chardonnay ($8 a glass, $30 a bottle), and half are priced from $22 to $28.

In the grilled vegetable salad ($10), slices of yellow squash, zucchini and skinny lengths of carrots had been tossed with pea pods and iceberg lettuce, with sharp feta sharpening the sweetness of the tender vegetables. A salad with chopped romaine, iceberg lettuce, carrots, chives, cabbage and blue cheese with caramelized walnuts ($10) is dressed with balsamic vinegar.

Battered sticks of eggplant sprinkled with grated Romano ($8) and bacon-wrapped scallops ($10) along with mussels marinara ($12) are also among the appetizers.

The chicken piccata is a unique version, at least to me, with chicken breast meat cut in chunks and sauted with quartered slices of lemon and served with caper berries. I prefer a piccata that uses a flattened chicken cutlet, but the flavors of this presentation were good; the sauce was tangy and certainly lemony.

A special of haddock ($17) cooked in white wine and garlic and set on pesto cream – placing the plain, mild fish above the sauce – allowed me to scoop as much or as little of the intense, thick pesto cream as I wished onto each bite. Just a touch was all that was needed, and I was grateful to be able to be in charge.

The mainstays of Italian-American cooking – lasagna ($17), baked rigatoni ($15) with meatballs or sausages and mozzarella, eggplant Parmigiana ($17) and scampi ($23) – are featured on the menu of Italian-American classics.

We got lucky with dessert (both $6), enjoying a perfect slice of spumoni perfumed with almond extract and colored green, pink and brown, with almonds and candied maraschino cherries embedded in the light ice cream.

It's supplied by Micucci Wholesale Foods in Portland, DiSanto said. "They have the best mascarpone in the world for my homemade tiramisu."

The cannoli's crunchy shell was demolished in an avid excavation of every bit of creamy, not-too-sweet ricotta filling, but the chocolate chips pressed on both ends seemed unnecessary.

My visit took place just two weeks before DiSanto's hired a new chef, Mark Pariano of Cleveland, a culinary arts graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

"We want to bring this restaurant to the next level," DiSanto said.

From the sound of Pariano's descriptions of butternut squash risotto with duck breast slated for the fall; a micro-dandelion greens salad with goat cheese, pine nuts and grilled shrimp in pomegranate molasses and orange blossom honey; and lavender creme brulee; the good, straightforward meals DiSanto already serves up will be even better.

Look for seasonal specials, pistachio-crusted rack of lamb with gnocchi and lemon mascarpone panna cotta too.

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of "Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast." Visit English's Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com. Copyright 2009 by The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. All rights reserved.

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