Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Searching for John Conte

Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.
— William Shakespeare

If you've never heard of John Conte, or been to his restaurant, well, we all have our shortcomings.

Should you wish to overcome a particularly egregious one of your own, I suggest you get your fine self to Rockland, and to Conte's, right quick.

You will not be unhappy you did this.

It is summer. It is Maine. It is what travelers do.

The old Conte's 1894 (the numerical designation is understood chiefly by the eccentric kitchen man himself) was vacated in April. Legend for its oddball decor and utter lack of convention, it's where John Conte earned his reputation as a grouchy yet skilled cook who never met an uptight snob he couldn't piss off, a head of garlic he couldn't use or a dinner plate he couldn't fill to extreme overcapacity and at a very reasonable price.

The new Conte's is a few blocks away, on Main Street. To say that I went there for dinner last week is to grossly underestimate the magnitude of this event. I loved the old place. It was a wreck, yes. Possibly a health hazard, who knows? A madhouse for sure, with uneven wavy floors, drafts that could move a wind meter, pile upon pile of books and art and junk infringing on usable (revenue-generating) space. It's why they invented the word dive. The place had all the charm of an about-to-be-condemned fish shack that no one (certainly not the town beautification committee) would miss when it was gone.

No one except for people like yours truly. I was devastated when I learned of the closing, and suspicious about an attempt to recreate a place that took so many years to perfect.

And so you can imagine my joy at discovering, upon arrival, that I'd been completely and boneheadedly wrong to have doubted John Conte's genius, or his commitment to the restaurant "concept" he so masterfully, if haphazardly, reared. The new place is just as wonderfully disreputable as the old one on the waterfront. It looks exactly like the old Conte's.

I was speechless.

But then Jeannie, everybody's favorite waitress, slapped me awake by informing me, in earshot of everybody in the joint, that I suck. She was yapping (as is her custom) and trying to light a candle (odd, given the room's temperature) in the vicinity of the animatronic Dean Martin which, if aided by a couple AA batteries, might perform "That's Amore."

This, of course, roused my cheapo pinot grigio-lubricated vocal chords to action.

"I suck?"

"You suck."

"Why do I suck?"

"You just suck."

All was right with the world. The dreaded move to new digs appeared not to affect any change whatever upon the place — or the colorful people who man it.


Some things to know up front:

* Though lunch is alleged to be served, I have never witnessed it, not even when in the vicinity at the appointed hour. Dinner is the play here, served from 5-8 pm, but to arrive near eight is to risk being turned away. The chef follows a very personal inner clock, not a P&L. To be safe, go no later than 7:30.
* Do not attempt to be seated without first ordering your party's entire meal (except for dessert) off the chalkboard in the hall. Such an attempt will neither be greeted hospitably nor accommodated.
* Go hungry. The portions are gigantic.
* Dress down. You'll see why when you get there. (In especially hot weather I'd suggest a T-shirt and shorts as there's no AC, only open windows that do not make use of bug screens.)
* Have a sense of humor. (If you don't have one, you don't belong here. Did you see the mermaid? Her breasts? C'mon.)
* Ditto a sense of irony, as the chef's is indeed well honed. (Witness the professional landscaping sign staked into the hopelessly unkempt front lawn.)
* Watch out for interesting food pairings, served always over pasta. (I once ordered lasagna and got a humongous slab accompanied by a nine-inch-long Italian sausage, atop a pile of ziti — yes, lasagna served over ziti!)
* Cutting-edge cuisine this is not. Think crazy Italian uncle, not Batali.
* Bring cash. Plastic, like order and normalcy, are eschewed here. Greatly.

I've been eating John Conte's food for years now. Except for what I perceive to be a lighter hand with the garlic nowadays (a change, if true, I am not so crazy about) his food hasn't changed a bit. Conte has fishmongering in his lineage, and he knows how to cook fresh seafood. (I do mean fresh; he does not even own a freezer.) He knows how to cook other stuff, too, but with seafood his gifts are abundant. (Just ask his big fan Anthony Bourdain.)

Also abundant in this man is a quirkiness unparalleled by any other (I've never heard "Taps" played over another restaurant's sound system, have you?). I could explain but what would be the point? Go and find out for yourself. Peek into the kitchen, easier here than at the old location, and you will see the gray-ponytailed, slightly disheveled and always elusive man himself, moving with purpose to prepare memorable meals just as he does each and every night.

Places like this — people like this — don't come around every day.

The chalkboard, written in the chef's hand. Stand before it and order. It's your only route to the dinner table.

Dino, in a more prominent role than at the old Conte's.

The (blurred, sorry) salad, with house vinaigrette; it'll be on the table when you sit down, and it's good. So is the housemade bread, also on the table when you arrive.

Branzino and scallops over linguini. The Branzino was the star this night. Perfectly cooked. Fantastic.

A pile of crabmeat. A pile of scallops. Served over, well, you know.

Lobster fra diavolo. Among the best I've had. And a sweeter, more perfectly cooked crustacean you will not find.

Pork osso bucco, with I-don't-even-know-how-many-different-kinds-of-sausage. All of them good.

Conte's 1894 is on Rte. 73 South, or South Main Street, in Rockland, Maine, just down the road from
Primo, arguably the state's finest restaurant. Don't look for a sign because there isn't one, and since Conte doesn't deem it necessary to spread around his address or phone number, then I won't either. Just look for a disreputable-looking building that's covered in fish netting and surrounded by nautical junk. It's next to a framing store if that helps.


Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Wow -what a menuboard! Everything looked so good! If I'm ever in Maine I'll search this place out! I'd order the lobster fra diavolo and be in heaven!

Jeannie said...

If I ever ended up in Maine, I'll log in and ask you for directions...the food look fantastic!

Proud Italian Cook said...

The food looks amazing, I need to get to Maine!

Claudia said...

I want to go! I want the seafood! I want to be barked at! (As an ex-NYC waitress... oh I mean actress - i can take it). If the food's good, you can yell at me!

Anonymous said...

Very good, Mr.MB! There are many old interesting Conte stories from the naked restaurant. Mostly great food enjoyed.

The Glamorous Gourmet said...

Great blog with a great title! My husband & his friends are going to Maine in a few weeks and will pass along this recommendation. I just signed up to follow you:) Stop by and visit me sometime at! Looking forward to your next post - Cheers!


Hilarious! We have quite a collection of "colorful" waitstaff here in Asheville. I think it's the artistic climate that lends itself to truly bad service!

The food looks incredible--thanks for the tip!

gin said...

I liked the genuine funkiness of the old Conte,but I wouldn't refuse an invite to the new.di

Debbie said...

Went to Conte's about 4 years ago. Twice-back to back days on a vacation! The seafood with Italian flair was delish! Everything you say is true, about the food, the location and the disposition of employees and the chef. Look at it as a restaurant show and you will be entertained. We have been distraught to think Contes was no more. My Google search brought me to your blog and I am ecstatic to know Contes is available for my Maine vacation next week! Thank you so very much. Debbie

Mussel Man said...

I went to Conte's during the Blues Festival 2009. They weren't serving a full menu but they were offering mussels for $4.95!! I figured I'd get six mussels and a bit of melted butter. Instead I got two large paper bowls with about a dozen mussels each served over bread drenched in lots of broth. Before I got back to my table I knew I'd order more. I did, about four more orders. The most fun was sharing with random Conte's!

Unknown said...

A friend and I intrigued by lure of juxtapositions stop in on our way back from camping in Acadia last September. It's just as we expected. Perfection. As a self proclaimed penny pincher with champagne taste on a beer budget, such gastronomic gems are rare in today’s culinary environment. Free from valets & Hawaiian sea salts, the fundamentals of food royalty are showcased in their proper perspective. Simply prepared ingredients, served at the peak of their freshness. For fishmongers it simply can be the best and worth risking loss of modern credit card conveniences or occasional off nights. Advise to the fair weather fishmonger, suck it up, and hit the ATM. This is Maine not Massachusetts.

Mister Meatball said...

Yeah, what he said.

Dominika said...

Hello Mr. Meatball! Great write-up. Would you mind if I linked to this page from our website? I have a small B&B in the area and am putting together a page with restaurants recommendations and gotta have Conte's on the list. Since they don't have a website, I'd much rather have this page stand in for one than tripadvisor...

Mister Meatball said...

Dominika: No prob, link away!

Anonymous said...

To say my family loves Conte's is such an understatement. We have a certifiable addiction to the place- including my 80+ grandma whom they hand VERY LARGE glasses of wine to as soon as we walk in. We've been going for years, and I can never fully describe the wonder to people who haven't been able to go...we usually vacation in ME every summer (I was born in Brunswick) but not this year. I can honestly say THE ONLY thing I am going to miss is Conte's....make sure you go, and make sure you check your ego at the door...enjoy!!!!

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I have had the pleasure and privilege, of working for that man. It was an interesting time in my life, and one I will not forget until the day I die. I learned plenty,quite a lot , working there. I am proud to call him, Boss, and old acquaintance.

Kent said...

During a recent visit I observed that Conte's Restaurant is not kind to out-of-towners and instead caters to the locals. Conte's is very difficult to find, especially at night. No sign outside and no lights. Building is hidden behind fishing equipment. I spent 45 mins. trying to find it via car. Street signs in this residential area don't specify Main St. When visiting Sept 27, the Conte's owner/staff were not sympathic when explaining my ordeal upon arriving shortly after 8 pm closing. I have since read online reviews from other visitors who encountered a similar ordeal with Conte's, concurring that Conte's is not kind to visitors. The owner of Conte's could have made an effort to fix the problem encountered on Sept. 27, but instead chose to ingore me and apparantly continues to treat other visitors the same harsh way.

Mister Meatball said...

Kent: Sorry for your troubles. Really I am.

This happens when an owner runs the place by his inner voices, not a P&L.

Though I myself may be a fierce Conte's loyalist, I know enough to realize that the restaurant (as well as its attitude and practices) simply is not for everyone.

I had hoped to convey this in the piece.

Bob McDonald said...

I've known Johnny since he was 13 and I was 12. It seems like some things never change. I worked in his fathers' fish market during my high school years where Johnny developed his extraordinary culinary skills cooking for his father Benny, brother Ben, and friends Tutti B., Ralph Z., Jojo L., Willie t.j., Joe G., and many other friends and customers. We ate like kings! I always considered him to be my best friend! It was a very memorable way to grow up. Many lifelong memories. Johnny Conte is still making happy memories for a multitude of very pleased customers! His pal, Bob McDonald

AJJ108 said...

Fun and informative blog! Would 2 somewhat picky vegetarians eat well at Conte's?

Mister Meatball said...

I would not say vegetarians should go here, no.

Unknown said...

We were so sad to hear that Conte's had closed. Any idea if Chef is opening in a new location? We'll be in the area in September and would love to see him again.

Mister Meatball said...

At the moment he is sharing space with Spruce Head Pizza in South Thomaston.