Chef Tim O’Brien of Brunswick’s Trattoria Athena Restaurant washed the crab off his hands before shaking mine. He had been cracking shells and scooping out the meat to prepare the filling for handmade crab ravioli. It sounds delicious, yes, but you won’t find the dish on the menu.
“It’s the birthday of one of our bartenders over at the Enoteca, and she’s coming in tonight with some friends,” he explained. “She loves crab, and I wanted to do something special for her.”
Enoteca Athena is O’Brien and his partner Marc Provencher’s new wine and small-plate bar situated behind chic glass doors at 97 Maine Street. But the tiny Trattoria, O’Brien’s first restaurant, occupies a one-room space on Mill Street just around the corner. Its location speaks to his vision: the restaurant is cozy, hidden and hospitable—it’s a place one comes home to and finds a surprise waiting.
The restaurant is, after all, modeled on a very real home. O’Brien grew up rolling pasta dough in his Italian grandmother’s kitchen.
“The Trattoria represents rustic, Italian countryside—that’s where my relatives are from,” said O’Brien. “It’s rough around the edges…no frills, no white-table cloth. I hate stuffy dining.”
The aesthetic of the interior fits the rustic fantasy: diners sit down at tables carved from reclaimed woodand choose from specials listed on a giant chalkboard propped on a mantle. While waiting for their food, their eyes might wander to the three-dimensional maps of Greece and Italy on the wall, or to the wooden models of pasta-making tools sitting on the shelves.
“How would I characterize the atmosphere?” O’Brien stopped to think. “Convivial,” he decided, finally. “That’s how I’d describe it. It’s convivial and intimate.”
O’Brien spent his childhood in Wells and Ogunquit Maine, and when he wasn’t assisting his grandmother in her kitchen, he was working in food service.
“Growing up in this tourist Mecca, every summer job I had was in a restaurant,” he said.
After earning his Masters in education, O’Brien began teaching high school English. But he couldn’t quite shake his training as his grandmother’s apprentice. Whenever he wasn’t in the classroom, he was back in the kitchen rolling dough.
“I was teaching and making pasta on the side,” he explained. He sold dried and fresh pasta at the Bath Farmer’s Market, and soon decided to pursue the culinary trade full-time. “I decided I’m young enough…I’ll try this out and see what happens.”
O’Brien continued selling pasta to local restaurants, and he began looking for a venue to serve as a permanent retail shop.
“That was the original plan for this space,” he explained.
When he decided to partner with Greek-cuisine expert Provencher, there was suddenly more than just pasta on the table. There was to be stewed meats and gyros and, of course, wine. It would be a restaurant, they decided. In 2010, Trattoria was born.
Trattoria Athena has certainly evolved since its inception.
“The paradigm is the same now but a lot of intricacies are different,” said O’Brien. “All along we were using local, sustainable, and organic products. That’s never wavered. We also never didn’t want to do a fusion. These are authentic Greek and Italian dishes. The difference is the menu is now larger than what it was.”
Trattoria’s menu evolved as O’Brien learned more about the culinary craft.
“I travel to Italy each year to keep abreast of new regional dishes,” he said. “There’s so much to explore in each region. That’s very important to me: I want people to know that the types of regional foods are so different.”
Authenticity is as important as innovation for O’Brien. He and Provencher model the Italian and Greek dishes (respectively) on the countries’ traditional cuisine, and the two chefs create the majority of the menu.
“The Italian side is 90 percent me and Greek side is 90 percent Marc,” he said. “But we definitely do talk to the other employees we have. It’s a collaborative effort in both places, but there might be more communication [in menu-planning] at the Enoteca. The Trattoria is more interested in authenticity.”
So how does one evoke the flavors of Greek and Italian provincial cuisine with the agricultural bounty of Midcoast Maine? The key is creativity, O’Brien explained.
“Seasonality is most important. It has to be what’s in season,” he said. If a dish calls for an ingredient that is inaccessible, O’Brien explained, “you just try to find similar elements. For example, broccoli rabe is really common where my grandmother is from. But it’s super hard to find it here. We have to find something that replaces its flavor…I’ll choose a bitter leafy green instead. The same thing goes for proteins. If I can’t get a specific fish, I’ll find one that’s local and has a similar texture.”
Fresh ingredients and authentic preparation are the framework for O’Brien’s culinary philosophy. But the chef’s palate dictates the specific nuances that make a dish stand out.
“I really like dishes that have flavors that are more esoteric than what people expect Italian food to be,” he said. Take the amaretto and orange-braised duck. “The dish originated in Florence, and the Medici brought it up to France with them. That’s where we get duck l’orange, the more popular version,” he explained. “It’s got a story to it. I always like dishes with a story.”
The burnt-flour pasta, a new menu item, has a story that goes back centuries.
“There’s a town about half an hour from my grandmother’s,” O’Brien started. “The fields there would be burnt after the wheat harvest. Peasants would pick through wheat berries and make a pasta out of it. It’s a really interesting taste, and the dish works perfectly with fall components, like Brussels sprouts.”
O’Brien works to balance his curiosity and creative instincts with the palate of his clientele. Sometimes the two don’t align.
“I once tried an old school traditional Tuscan dish: wild boar braised in chocolate and coffee sauce with raisins and pine nuts. It was cool because we were showing something different,” he said, “but it didn’t work at all.”
The dialogue between diner and server is essential to O’Brien’s growth as a chef.
“You see on these cooking programs this ‘mine’s the best’ mentality. That’s not me. I just put everything I can into a dish, and hope that everyone has an enjoyable experience. We definitely listen to the customers. There are so many regulars here, and we’ll ask them for feedback,” O’Brien said.
That is, unless a diner asks for ketchup on his steak.
“There are some things we won’t compromise on. I can’t serve something that completely changes the flavor.”
This instinct to train his diners’ palates is a skill O’Brien transferred from his years as a teacher.
“It’s probably the best thing I did before this,” he said. “I try to educate the people by letting the dish stand on its own. We don’t cover it in lots of sauce and cheese. We’re trying to let people know that Italian food isn’t just spaghetti and meatballs.”
Just as O’Brien strives to teach his diners, his own craftsmanship depends upon perpetual education.
“Before I was just a pasta-maker,” he reflected. “Now I am much more well-rounded in terms of creating composed dishes. I like to think I’m a little more refined.”