Trattoria Athena takes its name from its merging of Italian and Greek cuisines, which I suppose makes it a fusion restaurant of some sort. At the same time, pairing Italian and Greek invites the question: is it actually fusion if the two cuisines being combined are stylistically and geographically so similar? I actually think an Italian/Greek combination is quite compelling since they are just different enough to create an interesting contrast but similar enough that the grouping avoids getting sloppy. My parents are also fond of Mediterranean cuisine and so Trattoria Athena looked like a dream restaurant for a three-way family meal.
The ambience at Trattoria Athena is cramped, colorful, and rustic. In general, I appreciate small dining rooms because they feel more precise, but they also make me nervous because of the propensity for overloading the number of covers and establishing too much of a communal feel. Thankfully, the dining room allowed us just enough room to breathe and our table didn’t feel like an afterthought. I do have mixed feelings about the color choice, as a restaurant takes a pretty big risk when they paint the walls bright green. On the one hand, the color made for a vibrant décor, but it also felt like we were dining in Technicolor. There is also the issue of how refined a restaurant can be when they paint the walls so bright—I always enjoy contrasts, but if the color looks straight out of a cartoon, it frames the restaurant as casual, no matter how luxurious the ingredients are.
The dining room has two main focal points: on one wall are the maps of Greece and Italy, and on the other is an enormous chalk board boasting a litany of specials. Obviously, I understand the reasoning behind the maps, but I can’t understand why the restaurant chooses to offer so many specials, particularly because the menu proper is already quite large. This brings me to one of the stranger aspects of Trattoria Athena: the redundancy of the menu. With eight entrees already on the menu and four extra main courses on the chalkboard, the menu was overwhelming. In general, I enjoy restaurants that change their selections often since it reflects an inspired kitchen, but if the specials board is half the size of the menu, why bother with a seasonal menu? The menu redundancy was reflected in our choices, as my parents each ordered braised lamb dishes (one from the seasonal menu, one from the chalkboard), while I chose the duck/wild boar belly skewer special. For starters, we selected a number of Greek spreads and olive oils; my mother also ordered a salad special, and I chose the Insalata Grigliata con Guanciale.
Our oils and spreads were coursed out. First, we received a duo of olive oils—a Greek (Lakonia) oil and an Italian (Casa Pietraia) one. The Italian oil had a nice deep flavor but the Greek one was overwhelmingly fruity. Overall, I preferred the spreads; we ordered taramasalata (carp roe and bread puree), tzatziki, and htipiti (feta and grilled hot pepper). All of them were outstanding, but the bread was not crusty enough to handle the thick spreads.
I hardly ever order salads but I was interested in the textural contrast of this one—it had grilled romaine, bagna caoda dressing, house-cured pancetta, farro, and fried chick peas. The toothsome crunch of the chick peas and farro made this a fun and delicious take on a grilled Caesar salad.
My main dish contained grilled duck and boar belly, duck fat fried potatoes, and savoy cabbage. I figured that this dish was a safe bet as I love duck and cabbage, but the execution was not up to par—the duck and boar had been significantly overcooked and arrived dry. This dish exposed a problem I’ve found with Maine restaurants in general—the tendency to overcook meats. This issue is most notable with seafood. Maine has some of the best seafood in the country, but restaurants routinely overcook it to the point that the fish dries out. One restaurant that exemplifies this problem is Primo, a restaurant that prides itself on its local sourcing. By all means, I support a regional focus, but overcooking the fish kills the texture and flavor. While the duck and wild boar were not sourced locally, the kitchen’s preparation was reflective of a statewide tendency.
The kitchen actually confused my parents’ dishes and they were served each other’s plates. My dad was brought braised lamb shank with Greek orzo in a tomato-wine sauce and grated myzithra cheese. Meanwhile, my mother was served braised lamb with fettucine. The mix-up was not a problem since they each enjoyed the dishes, but I can’t understand the thought process that went into putting two braised lamb dishes with pasta and cheese on the menu. This issue raises the question: how different from one another do menu items have to be to justifiably coexist? I have no problem with a restaurant featuring two items from the same general group (for example, a beef and a veal dish, or duck and pigeon), but I think offering two braised lamb dishes is pretty difficult to justify.
(Two Braised Lamb Dishes)
Thankfully, the dessert menu was much shorter and there were only a few offerings. I am not particularly fond of phyllo dough and so I went with the lone Italian item, a tiramusu preparation that our server had recommended. The presentation looked fine (though I don’t care for powdered sugar), but the execution was lacking. Specifically, there was no liquor whatsoever, and it blows my mind that our server could recommend a tiramisu dish lacking a necessary ingredient.
As one can see, this meal started out quite strong but the latter half was disappointing. I think Trattoria Athena would benefit from paring down the menu and letting the quality of the ingredients shine by cooking the proteins less. More than this, though, my reservations are conceptual; I feel as though the restaurant would be a more compelling project if it actually combined Greek and Italian cuisines rather than offering Greek dishes and Italian ones side-by-side on the same menu. Consequently, the restaurant feels as though it is trying to satisfy two separate audiences—those looking for Greek food and those craving Italian—rather than a more ambitious approach that synthesized the two cuisines.
With its bright green walls, it is clear that Trattoria Athena wants to project a funky vibe. This is hardly a problem, as there is a pleasantly unstructured feel to the ambience. However, when the culinary execution and menu design are as unfocused as the décor, there is no unifying element holding the restaurant together, and this fundamental lack of precision is my biggest gripe about Trattoria Athena. Going into the meal, combining Italian and Greek cuisines seemed like an intuitive pairing, but this meal was ultimately one of the more unfocused I’ve had in some time.