Fresh Food Fresh Faces; Guinness & Porcelli’s balance between youth, experience

This story was published on April 03, 2002 on Page C1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday, and things are hopping at Guinness & Porcelli’s, considering the restaurant doesn’t open for about six hours. A constantly ringing phone has restaurateur Michael Boland dashing through the dining rooms, jotting down reservations. In the spacious, spotless kitchen, pastry chef Amy Oliver sips a cappuccino before she starts baking the evening’s bread.

“I’d live here if I could,” she said with a smile.

She practically does. She arrived before I got there in the morning, and she was still there at 10 p.m. as I was finishing up my dessert. So were Boland and head chef Cassady Pappas, whom I also had seen that morning. It’s not unusual to see people putting in these kind of hours when a restaurant first opens. But Guinness & Porcelli’s has been open since January. Plus, these people seem genuinely happy to be there, and they don’t even look tired.

Of course, this could have something to do with how young everyone is. Boland, who also owns two successful restaurants, a cigar bar and a nightclub in Bar Harbor – Havana, Rupununi, Joe’s Smoke Shop and Carmen Verandah respectively – is only 34. Oliver, who has worked as a private chef on Mount Desert Island, a caterer in San Francisco and a cook in Key West, Fla., is 25. And Pappas, who has worked as a chef in several Bangor-area restaurants, is 27.

Age is only part of the equation, though. The rest of it has to do with interest. Often, someone will tell you he’s working in a restaurant to put himself through school, or until he gets the job he really wants, or just to pay the bills. You won’t hear this at Guinness & Porcelli’s.

“This is what we want to do,” Oliver said.

“There are people here who want to be in the restaurant business,” Boland added.

And they also want to be in Bangor. Most of the staff – including Oliver, Pappas and sous chef Jeff Kelley – grew up here, went away for a few years and came back, so they have strong ties to the area.

Boland’s ties are relatively new, but equally strong. While visiting Maine from Pennsylvania, he fell in love with Bar Harbor and decided to attend College of the Atlantic. He started bartending at 19. At 26, he opened Rupununi, a popular bar and grill in downtown Bar Harbor. Three years ago, he opened Havana down the street, an upscale restaurant that serves contemporary cuisine. Last fall, when the former City Limits building came up for auction, he set his sights on Bangor.

“I’d always wanted to do it,” he said. “It’s a great city.”

He bought the building on Nov. 20, 2001, and opened on Jan. 18, 2002. In less than two months, the wallpaper was stripped and replaced with paint in shades of warm orange, soft yellow and mossy green. The carpets were ripped out and the floors were covered with swirled cork parquet or Mexican tiles. The kitchen was renovated, a wine room was built in the cellar, and the wait station was converted into a bar, with a funky Thai granite countertop. Needless to say, the paint was still drying on opening day.

“I’ve done a lot of projects that are kind of last-minute, but this one took the cake,” Boland said, laughing.

The name of the restaurant was no last-minute affair. And no, it doesn’t come from the beer. It’s a combination of Boland’s business partner’s family name and a misunderstanding of the name of a mushroom. The business partner thought it was “porcelli.” Boland pointed out that it was “porcini,” but they agreed that porcelli sounded better, so they stuck with it.

The Italian-sounding name complemented the cuisine they planned to serve, too. Boland knew he wanted to open an Italian restaurant, but he didn’t want to limit the menu to one region.

“It’s really flexible,” Boland said. “We can change with the seasons.”

“We do change around all the time,” Oliver piped in. “It’s very fun. There’s no squelching of creativity here. People are encouraged to come up with new ideas.”

During a recent visit, Oliver’s dessert tray featured one of those new ideas: a stacked confection of cannoli shell, orange custard, a thin layer of bittersweet chocolate, orange cream and another layer of cannoli shell, topped with tiny orange slices. Our waitress explained that Oliver had sketched out the dessert before she started experimenting with the ingredients. She also developed her own natural-air sourdough in the tradition of San Francisco bakers.

Pappas is constantly fine-tuning his menus as well, depending on which fish looks the best, which produce is in season and which new oils, meats, cheeses or vinegars were imported from Italy that week. Among the recent selections were an antipasto of thin-sliced salami, small hunks of cheese, olives, grilled vegetables, and a hot cherry pepper stuffed with smoked ham and shaved Parmesan; roasted red pepper bisque with a scoop of Maine crabmeat; Pollo Carciofi, or chicken with baby artichoke hearts in a parsley-white wine sauce; risotto with asparagus; freshly made ravioli stuffed with chevre; and salmon with horseradish cream sauce, over slivers of caramelized leek.

“I just try to keep it seasonal and I try to use local products as much as possible,” Pappas said. “I love Italian food. It’s quite varied. It’s not just spaghetti and meatballs.”

So far, people have responded well to the idea of upscale Italian cuisine served in a stylish atmosphere.

“I think Bangor is an up-and-coming city and this is a sophisticated dining experience,” said Oliver, who likes to go out to eat on her days off. “I think Bangor’s ready for that. People like to eat out and they want good food. This isn’t dumbed-down.”

Boland said Guinness & Porcelli’s isn’t the only place in town offering that sophisticated experience, which is good for the diners and for the restaurateurs. The more places people have to eat, he says, the more reasons they’ll have go out. In the coming months, the restaurant will expand its offerings to include Sunday brunch and wine dinners as well.

“There’s no reason people can’t have the same dining experience in Bangor that they can in Portland,” Boland said.

Guinness & Porcelli’s is open for dinner only. Hours are 5-10 p.m. daily. For information or reservations, call 947-2300.