Varano's gives simple ingredients perfect showcase

By: N.L. English

WELLS - Varano's Italian Restaurant exemplifies why the older generation of foodies has such enthusiasm for Italian-American cuisine. All the usual suspects, pungent with garlic, brilliant with concentrated tomato, sharp with dry, aged and renowned cheeses, are on the menu, and what is far, far more, they are as good as they get. I could not, for the life of me, try them all. But when two huge oval plates were plonked down before the couple next to us and one of them, a slender woman, announced, "It's not happening," I could safely conclude that no one was going home hungry - or even going home to anyone who would be hungry for long. Folks with teenagers back at the house, take note. But the needs of teenagers, pressing though they may be, should not steer anyone into an eatery just for a pound of leftovers. Varano's satisfies the far more important criterion of feeding parents and others exceptionally good food. Start with the crisp Italian bread, as we did, dipped into garlic-infused olive oil in a saucer of grated Romano. Jessica's Bakery in Woburn, Mass., makes the big ciabatta loaf, cut for the table and heated in a very hot oven right before it's served. Then sip the robust, dry and full-bodied Masi Campofiorin Valpolicella 2004 ($8), a ripasso wine, exactly described by the wonderful server, a woman with a thorough knowledge of her restaurant's wine list. As our server noted, my friend's Angelini 2007 Pinot Noir ($7), also Italian, showed in its translucent red its lighter body, proof it was what my friend had requested. The 200-bottle wine list turns up Barolo and Barbaresco, Aglianico and Sardinian Vermentino and far more, from every corner and hillside of Italy. Baked oysters ($12.95) displayed the crucial light hand in charge in the kitchen. Adorned instead of demolished, succulent, lightly cooked oysters are capped with garlicky spinach, a cube of browned pancetta or two, a mere scatter of golden crumbs, and a drop of Pernod. Only the Parmigiano Reggiano appetizer was a bust. The cheese, a modest young specimen, had been cut in cubes, when thin slices could have better shown off its nutty, savory magic. Champagne grapes, honey across the bottom of the plate, and thin, toasted crostini anointed with oil were delightful accompaniments. However, managing partner Roger Sibley said, the cheese was originally served in thin shaved slices, but customers had requested something more substantial. "Trust me, we know what we're doing here." He has been in the restaurant business for 25 years. His partner, Culinary Institute of America graduate Richard Varano, and Varano's wife, Sherri, also own Billy's Chowder House and Wells Beach Steakhouse. Varano's opened in March 2000. Steamed mussels ($10.95) with a hefty boost from garlic, plates of salami, prosciutto, sopressata, capicola and pickled vegetables ($10.95) or augmented with house mozzarella and pickled vegetables for two ($14.95) and an appetizer of roasted vegetables ($9.95) are a few other starters from a large list. A side Caesar ($3.50) was a big bowl full of crunchy hearts of romaine, liberally and yet delectably dressed with the house Caesar dressing and topped with anchovies, by request, and grated Romano. The excellent olive oil gave that dressing allure, along with (pasteurized) egg yolks, anchovy, garlic and lemon juice - and a dash of Worcestershire. Bucatini Bolognese ($18.95), served in a wide and not-so-shallow bowl, held presentable al dente dried pasta topped with a heavenly rich sauce made with mortadella, prosciutto, pancetta, veal, pork, chicken (including a little chopped liver), porcini mushrooms, red wine, veal stock, nutmeg, tomato and cream. That list is thanks to Executive Chef Stephen Ogden, another CIA graduate who was making that sauce when he spoke to me on the phone. The tender meats infused the final product with magnificent... savor, and grated Pecorino Romano imbued it with a bit of welcome salt. The basin of cioppino, far and away the most expensive thing here at $31.95, held a split lobster, shrimp, scallops, mussels, squid and clams, and each was tender and perfectly cooked. But the broth was the real star, herby, briny and savory, garlicky and laced with tomato. Crisp thin-sliced toast was excellent after submersion. Clams in white sauce with linguine ($22.95) would be likely to shine with the necessary garlic. The 10-ounce sirloin steak ($25.95) comes with roasted roma tomatoes. The house sausage ($17.95) is served with sauted peppers and polenta. Though it is a difficult challenge to enjoy dessert, the tiramisu ($5.95) is actually portioned reasonably, and is also fresh, tender and creamy. Zabaglione ($8.50) - beaten egg yolks flavored with sugar and Marsala - made an exceedingly rich dessert capped by thick, fresh whipped cream. Perhaps the yolks could have been beaten longer and made lighter with more little bubbles of air. But aside from that quibble, it was wonderful enrobing the sliced, juicy strawberries. Satisfactory decaffeinated coffee ($2.75) ended our meal, and we left armed with a white paper bag filled with good pasta and those delectable little grapes.
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,