Bernie’s joint: Osteria Bucci

A little Italian gem in Damariscotta
Posted:  Wednesday, January 10, 2018 - 10:00am
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Unless you’ve been to Italy, you may very well have never experienced anything quite like the Damariscotta restaurant Osteria Bucci. The little gem is tucked away off a small alleyway, and the sign hanging beside the door is as small and unpretentious as the interior is. In fact, unless you happen to get a whiff of whatever is cooking inside on any given day, you’re apt to just walk.

Don’t. Just follow your nose into the small, offbeat, cozy restaurant. As soon as you do, you’ll know you’re in for a treat.

It really is a gem, and it really is little. The space, which has housed a few different Mexican restaurants, beginning with Paco’s Tacos in the ’80s, has been transformed into an osteria (Italian for restaurant), right out of a small town in Italy, thanks to  owner Bernie DeLisle.

There are photos of DeLisle’s Italian grandparents, Antonietta (Matteo) and Antonio Bucci, and other relatives, on the walls surrounding the one long table that will seat up to 10, in the dining room.

His grandmother, who lived with DeLisle’s family later in her life, hailed from a small municipality 80 miles south of Rome, and DeLisle is keeping her memory alive through some of her favorite dishes.

Don’t go to Osteria Bucci looking for a big menu with lots of pasta dishes full of lots of sauces and cheeses. Not that you won’t ever find them. The menu changes daily, depending on DeLisle’s capriciousness.

But one thing you can depend on is one of DeLisle’s spinach pies.

The recipe is his grandmother’s. They’re individually made, encased in their own pie shell, small enough to hold in your hand while you walk happily down the street, but big enough to call lunch, and they’re so good you may want to grab two, or a dozen.

DeLisle makes three different kinds of spinach pies: One with just spinach, one with gorgonzola, and one with Italian sausage. Simple. “It’s sort of like Italian soul food,” he said. “It’s humble. No one’s going to take a picture of it, it’s not going to be featured in a glossy magazine. It’s just home food.”

The food may be humble, but it’s not ordinary, and there’s nothing typical about DeLisle’s osteria. In Italy, an osteria is a place that serves wine and simple food, often at shared tables. With the one big dining table, a small counter with two stools, and a few armchairs scattered about, shared dining at the table is encouraged.

DeLisle isn’t exactly a typical restaurant owner-chef, either. He doesn’t abide by a lot of rules. He’s doing it because he wants to. That’s all. And he’s no novice in the restaurant world.

DeLisle grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. His first job was at a small diner near his hometown. One day in 1978, he met the owner of a French restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard. DeLisle, who didn’t have a clue about French cuisine, bought a “big, fat” French cookbook, and went to work in Edgartown.

Later, with several years of cooking under his belt, he took a job as a private chef in New York City. Next he bought an inn, with an American restaurant and cabaret, on Lake Champlain.

By 1994, he’d made his way to the Waterfront Restaurant in Camden, where he worked as head chef, and eventually manager of that and the Cannery in Yarmouth.

By this time, DeLisle was living in Newcastle, and after opening two shops, Aboca Beads and Darling & DeLisle Studio, with his wife, Chris Darling-DeLisle, in 2015 he opened Van Lloyd’s Bistro, with his son August and wife Torie Van Horne.

After selling Van Lloyd’s last year, DeLisle said he was feeling like it was time to slowly “disappear” from the restaurant scene. But last summer he started getting the itch again.

Initially his plan was to just make and sell the spinach pies, fast food style. “I was thinking I’d call the place something ridiculous, like Nana Bucci’s Spinach Pie Factory.”

Now, besides that specialty, which is a constant on the menu, you’ll find other savory Italian soups and dishes, and platters full of delectable-looking cookies and other sweets – most of them gluten-free, though not by design. Like a lot of his food, they just happened organically, using nuts instead of flour in many.

A chalkboard just inside the door lists the items of the day, a combination of savories and sweets. DeLisle keeps it simple. He is, after all, his only employee. “I’ve got it down to what I can manage to do in the morning.”

On Jan. 3, the array of gluten-free goodies included a dark chocolate torte made with almond flour, with raspberry filling; pecan double-chocolate cookies, some crispy white almond cookies; and macaroons. There was a platter of DeLisle’s famous lemon squares and fresh-made cannoli (baked, not fried), too.

DeLisle is modest about his simple, fresh, food. He doesn’t brag about “making up recipes.” He said most of what he makes evolved from other recipes. “I adapted them. It’s hard to say you make up anything when it comes to food.”

And he’ll insist that you eat that food as soon as it’s served. He’s a firm believer in food being at its peak the minute it hits the table, or your hand. “I’ve never had heat lamps. It’s gotta go from the oven or the pan or wherever it’s coming from, as fast as possible, to the customer, while it’s hot.”

Depending on the day, and DeLisle’s whims, you’ll find stracciatella (egg drop soup), escarole pie, eggplant parmigiana, sausage bread, pepper and fennel biscuits, pizza slices, and lasagna with handmade pasta, of course. “If you have to do it, you have to do it right.”

Remember – the place is small. There’s room for eight to 10 at the big table, two at the small counter, and a couple soft chairs with a small table between them. If there’s an onslaught of patrons, there are a couple more soft chairs in a section of the wide open kitchen. And DeLisle will let you sit there if you’re nice. “The theory was, if you came to my house, you’d probably hang out in the kitchen.

DeLisle is usually in the kitchen by 5:30 a.m., and the restaurant opens at 10. It usually closes around 2:30, or when he runs out of food. There are two signs he hangs on the door. One says ‘”Open,” the other says “Sold Out.”

The restaurant is available for private parties. DeLisle will whip up a big platter of antipasto for starters, and you can take your own wine.

And while you’re milling around sipping and mingling and admiring the establishment, check out the small display of pearl rings for sale, made by DeLisle.

Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. until sold out. Look for Osteria Bucci on Facebook.