Recently, I dined with friends at the new incarnation of take-no-prisoners Conte’s Restaurant in Rockland, Maine. Devotees of John Conte’s infamous seafood-and-pasta dive were thrilled to see it reopen on South Main Street, after evacuating its waterfront digs earlier this year (after celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain featured it on his No Reservations show). But could he recreate the uhm magic?
The old Conte’s was renowned as much for its surly lack of customer service as it was for its food. The location was an atmospheric dump (I’m being kind), where the roof leaked and the garlic reeked. The menu was posted on a roll of paper towels at the door; newspapers served as tablecloths; cats might wander through the dining area; and you had to navigate through a flotsam and jetsam of fishing-related junk to enter. It was eccentric, unpredictable, not spotless, didn’t take credit cards, and had no phone, so you couldn’t call to be sure it was open. So, what was the attraction? John Conte knew—really knew—how to cook seafood and pasta, and he served humongous portions at reasonable prices.
I’m here to tell you, on all fronts, not much has changed.
But first you have to find the new Conte’s: There’s a sign post, but no sign (look for the relocated flotsam and jetsam strewn out front; as a friend said, I’m sure the neighbors just love this—not). We entered to hear a dog barking in the kitchen. A waitress greeted us, pointed to the chalkboard menu ($16-30) and explained it to us. We ordered, then headed to a table in the dining room.
Newspapers covered the table, where slabs of hearty bread and family-style salads comprising huge pieces of lettuce, big wedges of tomatoes, and marinated mushrooms and cukes awaited, along with big bottles of dressings, a vinaigrette and a dill.
The decor is a mishmash—piles of to-go cartons (a hint that the portion size hasn’t changed), books, cannisters; outside the open, unscreened door, a meat grinder, shiny, strainless steel (I didn’t want to know). Within minutes, our glasses of wine appeared, followed by offers of more bread. If this is Conte’s new service standard, I’m all for it: fast, friendly, efficient.
Now it would have been easy to feast on salad and bread alone, but that’s not why we came. I had linguine with crab-stuffed sole in a garlic-lemon sauce, a friend let me sample her linguine with shrimp and sausage in a marinara sauce. Both had chunks of garlic, lots and lots and lots of garlic. Both also could have easily fed two (perhaps three) people.
We split dessert, a blueberry and chocolate cheesecake topped with fresh strawberries. And had more wine. Now here was the fun part, the mismatched glasswear results in some interesting servings. My second glass of pinot grigio arrived in huge water goblet, and it was filled almost to the brim. It was easily 1.5-times the size of my first glass and far larger than another glass served to someone else in our party.
Bottom line: Was it good? Yes. Was it as amazing as legend? Nah. It was just damn good—and piping hot—pasta topped with perfectly cooked seafood, but the flavors didn’t really meld. Would I return? Yes. Would I go out of my way to do so? Nah.