Portsmouth Eats: Ristorante Massimo

Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

On Saturday night, during our stay in Portsmouth, my mom and I ventured over to Ristorante Massimo for dinner. Proprietor Massimo Morgia greeted us, welcomed us to his restaurant, and showed us to our table.

Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

He also filled us in on a little of the building's history, noting that it was the federal government's Custom House. The cellar -- where we were sitting -- was built with arches to support a large vault upstairs. The arched alcoves made for comfy, adorable, somewhat private seating.

We began the evening with fresh bread and olive oil...

...and a couple of cocktails. I went with a bellini, which was perfectly bubbly and peachy. We later switched to Italian red wines.

Cocktails at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

We decided to share some appetizers, soup, and an entree. I love being able to sample little bits of everything and so does my mom, so this plan was perfect for the two of us.

The first thing on the menu that jumped out at me was the gnocconi alla loichle: chianti-braised beef tenderloin tossed with housemade cracked pepper dumplings, arugula, and creme fraiche and topped with toasted pine nuts, fried basil, and shaved pecorino. This dish is available in full and half orders, and we just got a half order because there were other pastas that looked interesting too. I loved this dish so much. It was rich and hearty, but not so much so that it felt heavy. Frying the basil was a unique preparation that added a pop of flavor plus some crispy contrast to the dish.

Chianti-braised beef tenderloin at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

For another pasta dish, we went with a half order of something completely different: angel hair pasta with clams. This dish was another big hit. The bright, lemony sauce was studded with meaty clams, and the not-at-all-heavy fried clams on top added crunch to the delicate pasta. I thought it was very unique as I've never had fried clams in addition to clam sauce.

Angel hair pasta with clams at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

At this point Massimo heard that we had just ordered soup and an entree (we were trying to be good!), so he sent us out a couple more dishes. The caprese salad featured heirloom tomatoes tossed with fresh mozzarella and basil and drizzled with olive oil and a balsamic reduction. I'm so used to seeing layered caprese salads, so the quartered heirloom tomatoes here were a welcome change. There's nothing not to love about a caprese salad, and this one did not disappoint.

Caprese salad at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

The prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with gorgonzola dolce and served with an olive oil-dressed arugula salad arrived next. These were the perfect mix of sweet and salty and fruity and meaty. The ripe figs gave way to soft centers oozing with the lightly pungent gorgonzola dolce.

Prosciutto-wrapped figs at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

We both love pasta fagioli and had to try Massimo's version. The mirepoix-based tomato brodo was filled with kobe meatballs, Italian sausage, kidney beans, and ditalini pasta and garnished with manchego cheese. The pasta fagioli I grew up eating never had any meat in it, so it was interesting to eat one packed with two different kinds. The meat noticeably imparted flavor and body to the broth. And the piquant sheep's milk cheese was the perfect topping.

Pasta fagioli at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

While many of the entrees on the menu sounded incredible (from pan-roasted duck breast to lobster to a center-cut veal chop), it was the filet with tomatoes and mozzarella over housemade dumplings that I was craving that night. The tender, mild filet, cooked to our requested medium-rare, provided just the right background for its flavorful accompaniments. I'd order it again in a heartbeat.

Filet with tomatoes and mozzarella at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

No matter how much one has eaten for dinner, there's always room for dessert, right? After having such fabulous appetizers and entrees, we couldn't imagine leaving without it. My mom ordered an espresso to go with hers, and it was served in a diminutive cup with a twist of lemon.

Espresso at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

We shared the tiramisu, which was garnished with cocoa powder and decked out with an M -- most likely for Massimo's but it worked for me and my mom (Megan and Mary) too. The tiramisu was very traditional with espresso-soaked lady fingers, but it also featured Marsala cream, which I'd never encountered in the dessert before. We ate as much as we possibly could!

Tiramisu at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

We also tried the melone con gelato because I thought it sounded a little lighter. It was a dish of local yellow watermelon gelee with a mixed melon salad, basil gelato, and aged balsamic reduction. The gelee was the only aspect of the dish I didn't love. The basil gelato and fresh fruit spiked with a little balsamic were wonderful and, as I suspected, on the lighter side.

Melone con gelato at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

Being chocoholics we couldn't resist the pate di cioccolatta. (And we got the last one in the house, which I noticed invoked disappointment from nearby diners when the waiter informed them they were out.) This rich, creamy chocolate pate was served with candied orange peel and hazelnuts and was definitely my favorite dessert. I was so happy we ordered it.

Pate di cioccolatta at Ristorante Massimo, Portsmouth, N.H.

At Massimo's even the pastas and breads are made from scratch and the focus is on local, seasonal ingredients. I was truly impressed with our meal, the service, and how friendly and welcoming Massimo was to every diner. It says a lot that he cares so much about his restaurant, and it shows in both the food and atmosphere. I know I'll be back on future visits to Portsmouth.

Massimo treated us to dinner, but as always, I share my honest opinions with you here.

What do you like to order at an Italian restaurant?

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