Wednesday, May 11, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: GREAT IMPASTA IN BRUNSWICK MAINE

Review of an enjoyable restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


The Great Impasta is a pleasant little neighborhood restaurant located at one end of Brunswick's handsome Maine Street, near Route One. Its ambiance recalls the kind of cozy places once often found in the neighborhoods of our very large cities.

The restaurant has a row of appealing wooden booths along each wall and a single row of tables between. One wall is mirrored to increase the sense of space and the other features a mural on themes of Venice bearing some resemblance to the colorful, printed boxes used by some pizza places. The back of the restaurant, with painted bricks and a striped awning, has the kitchen partly visible through windows under the awning. It's the kind of place where you expect to find red-and-white checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles with candles, but I don't think anyone still does this. These tables are set with blue-and-white checked napkins, a small oil lamp, and some fresh flowers.

They do a very good business with a crowd that included a number of families with children and what appeared to be students from Bowdoin. And it is no wonder since generous portions are offered at reasonable prices. Although no reservations are accepted, if you call before you come, they will put you on the waiting list. Service is informal and adequate.

The Great Impasta has a small wine list, eight items, with every selection available by the glass. Four additional house wines are available by the glass, half carafe, or carafe. Most selections are less than $20 per bottle. Well, what could be more fitting than Chianti? A glass of the house Inglenook ($3.50) was pleasant enough and made a good accompaniment to our basket of warm, short rolls, dripping with garlic butter.

Pizza carciofi ($4.95) is an appetizer consisting of a fat chunk of focaccia covered with artichoke hearts, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and grated Fontinella cheese. It was very good, but after the deliciously oily bread and with the prospect of pasta ahead, I knew my carbohydrate intake would be off the scale, but thoughts like this seem inappropriate to the mood of such a place and are quickly banished by another bite of bread.

Our special appetizer of polenta ($5.95) had four sticks (fagottini) of polenta, each wrapped with prosciutto and drizzled with rosemary-garlic olive oil. The polenta was admirably smooth and moist. But, despite my love of rosemary, there was too much of it in the oil. We found ourselves picking off bits. Still, this was a tasty, substantial appetizer.

There is no selection of salads offered, but all entrees come with what the menu calls an "antipasto-style salad." This consisted of Romaine, tomato chunks, red onion, garbonzo beans, croutons, a few strips of salami and some black olive slices in a pleasant vinaigrette. It was a good salad, my only criticism being the olives. These were bland, ripe California-canned. How much more exciting and suitable would be the savory taste of Italian oil-cured or Sicilian green olives.

Entrees do indeed focus on pasta, ranging from dishes with cheese and vegetables to seafood, and there is a small selection of chicken and veal plus one risotto. There are a few classics like lasagna and spaghetti Bolognese, but many such as ravioli, cacciatore, or parmigiana dishes are not found. The overall "feel" of the menu is a mix between the traditions of small American-Italian restaurants and the more contemporary world of young-urban concepts of pasta, perhaps with the latter dominant. The menu, somewhat in the fashion of a fast-food operation, offers a choice of combining any of its pastas with any of its sauces.

Our gamberi e pollo ($10.95) had slices of chicken breast over a large plate of fettuccine flavored with black pepper and a sauce of sour cream, wine, walnuts, and small shrimp. This was a flavorful dish, and the serving was large enough to take some home for next day's lunch.

Being a lover of the very comforting pasta classics associated with checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles with candles, I couldn't resist spaghetti Bolognese ($8.95) with meat balls ($2.75). The plate was generous and appealing. The sauce is chunky, as it should be, made with diced tomatoes with a fair amount of ground meat in it, but it was somewhat flat-tasting, lacking the bits of vegetables such as green pepper that characterize a good Bolognese sauce, which, after all, is sometimes called a stew (ragu). The pasta, the thin spaghetti fedelini, was cooked a little beyond al dente. Still, this was a decent and substantial plate of meat-sauced spaghetti for a reasonable price.

The extra meat balls, however, were disappointing, having a very high content of bread and no interesting seasoning, not even the flavor of sauce since they are not simmered in any.

The dessert menu has five items on it, but we didn't need to look beyond the first two, tiramisu ($3.50) and cannoli ($2.95). And this is where The Great Impasta most excelled. Its house-made version of tiramisu is a rich, layered concoction of espresso-flavored lady fingers, chocolate cake, pound cake, mascarpone-custard, whipped cream and coffee brandy. It is moist - rich with the tastes of brandy, coffee, and chocolate - and delicious.

Great Impasta also makes its own cannoli. The fried, rolled pastry, somewhat resembling a good waffle cone, is stuffed with sweet Ricotta-cheese filling, flavored this particular day with pineapple bits and coconut. There was no skimping on the pineapple bits - the filling was loaded with them.

These two desserts, considering both their quality and their reasonable prices, must rank among the great restaurant values you'll find anywhere.

Our bill came to $57.25. And I almost felt like imitating a character in an old Vittorio De Sica movie who, during a huge family meal, unbuttons his pants under the table to ease his bulging stomach.

The Great Impasta
42 Maine Street
Brunswick
729-5858

Food: 3 1/2
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 3
Dinner hours: 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Thursday
4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $8.95 to $12.95
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: no
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes
The Bottom Line: A cozy, busy little place with some good values

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