“All women become like their mothers. ?That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”
– Oscar Wilde, Irish poet
When Lisa Vaccaro, co-owner and general manager of Caiola’s in Portland’s West End, was growing up in Springvale, she and her four siblings were the “guinea pigs” for her mother Rachel’s recipe experiments.
“Dad would get one meal, and we would get the one she was working on,” recalls Vaccaro of her mother, who died when Vaccaro was 27. “She was a big fan of Julia Childs and the Galloping Gourmet. She just loved trying new things.”
It was serendipitous, in a way, that Vaccaro would end up co-owning a restaurant with chef Abby Harmon, a restaurant that is noted for its upscale comfort food. In fact, Harmon says, some of Caiola’s menu items were inspired by the recipes of Vaccaro’s mother.
“She had an incredible collection of cookbooks and sets of pots and pans. I love reading through her old 1950s and ’60s Gourmet magazines and seeing where she underlined things,” says Harmon. “Definitely her spirit is in Caiola’s. It was the perfect match.”
Vaccaro and Harmon, who have been life partners for 20 years, opened Caiola’s five years ago. Since then, it has earned a reputation as a gourmet restaurant with a neighborhood feel that gets rave reviews for its Sunday brunch and for its use of locally grown produce, meats, fish, and cheeses.
Neither Harmon, 47, nor Vaccaro, 46, ever imagined they would own a restaurant – or even be in the food business, for that matter. Harmon grew up in Cutler and went to the University of Maine at Machias. After graduation, she worked as a personal trainer in Bar Harbor and sold outdoor equipment in Ellsworth.
On a whim, though, Harmon decided to answer an ad in the paper for a sandwich maker at Frankie’s Cafe? in Ellsworth, no experience necessary. She eventually moved to Portland and learned the ropes of becoming a chef. In the ensuing years, Harmon landed a job at Street and Company, a gourmet seafood restaurant in Portland’s Old Port, where she moved up from grill chef to sous chef to chef.
Five years ago, the pair began dreaming about starting their own restaurant. The chance came when a prime space on Pine Street in Portland was available for lease. Vaccaro, who has a woodworking shop, built the restaurant space, which patrons have described as rustic and “perfectly New England,” with a “log cabin vibe.” Harmon and Vaccaro call their business a “neighborhood” restaurant because it is firmly ensconced next to Aurora Provisions in Portland’s trendy, brick-sidewalked West End. From the very beginning, it has been a place where locals tend to frequent on a regular basis.
“When we were working on it, neighbors were curious,” recalls Vaccaro. “We started cultivating relationships and those people kind of became part of Caiola’s before we even opened.”
The restaurant’s family atmosphere reminds Vaccaro again of her own growing-up years, surrounded by lots of food cooking in the kitchen, and lots of neighbors excited about the prospect of sharing in the bounty.
“My mom cooked for everybody – neighbors, friends – there was always more than enough,” says Vaccaro. “And Abby’s mother was the same way. They were incredible cooks.”
Harmon credits her mother, Barbara, who died two years ago, as the inspiration for some of her distinctive seafood dishes. Cutler is a small Down East fishing village and Harmon remembers foraging for periwinkles along the shore with her mom, filling a burlap bag full of them and having them for dinner.
“She’d steam them with apple cider vinegar and serve them with warm butter,” Harmon recalls.
Harmon says customers would likely find steamed periwinkles a bit too labor intensive as an appetizer. But she has created several riffs on the salted cod that was a staple on their dining table. One is the salt cod chowder she makes, adding root veggies to give it a “boiled dinner feel.” Another example is a dip-like dish called brandade, which is popular in the south of France as a Christmas Eve treat.
“You whip up the cod and add potatoes,” says Harmon. “My mom is definitely part of my inspiration, especially in the realm of seafood.”
Caiola’s has stayed busy despite the economy’s downturn and Harmon has won acclaim as one of Portland’s most creative chefs. She loves the chance to try out new recipes, just as her mother and Vaccaro’s mother once did. Their regular customers aren’t shy, she says, in telling her and Vaccaro what does and what doesn’t work.
“They feel comfortable enough to say what they like and what they don’t like,” says Harmon. “Portland is an interesting place where a new restaurant seems to open every day. We’ve been lucky to be doing so well without much publicity. We always hope people will just stumble upon us.”