Eats: Espo’s — Light a fire under your appetite with their penne vodka

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Espo’s Trattoria has been serving up hearty Italian fare for almost 40 years at its Congress Street restaurant in Portland. Owner Bob Esposito learned about the business from his father, Espo’s founder, and carries on a family tradition of featuring homemade sauces and dressings. Another key ingredient to Espo’s success has been its very generous portions. When you come to the table at Espo’s you are expected to “Mangia!” And if you don’t clean your plate, you’ve got a tasty lunch or dinner for the next day.

That standard of abundant, fresh, homemade food has carried over to the family-owned establishments in Sanford and in Lewiston. Lewiston’s locale opened in 2005. Chef Steve Zanco may be new to Espo’s (he joined the staff in March), but he brings 30 years’ experience with him. On a recent visit, I had the pleasure of watching Steve create a simple yet mouthwateringly delicious plate of penne vodka. A top-seller on Espo’s menu, penne vodka is a quick and easy dish that can be a great go-to meal in any home cook’s repertoire.

Steve showed me the basic recipe, but you can expand on this master recipe to include chicken, shrimp or scallops. Mind you, I use the word “recipe” loosely. Once you’ve made this a number of times, this is a dish you make without having a recipe. And for harried home cooks, that is the best kind of all. When asked to write it down, keep in mind what Steve told me: “Cooking is an art.” So you may need to play around with proportions to suit your taste.

OK, here are a couple of things to note for you home cooks out there. When Steve made the dish, there were some huge flames involved briefly when the vodka was added. So be careful. You might want to view our video of Steve preparing the dish and see how a pro handles it before proceeding further. Second, Espo’s marinara sauce is a secret family recipe, so when you get to the part that says “Add the marinara” you are up a creek, because I could not pry that information out of Steve. Fortunately, I can offer this advice. If you’re in a hurry and you have jar marinara sauce on hand, throw it in! If you have your own secret family marinara recipe and you’ve already whipped up a batch, use that! If you have neither, try this, which comes from the Food Network Kitchens, and is quite good.

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Quick Marinara Sauce

¼ cup olive oil

¼ medium onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

3 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped

3 sprigs fresh thyme

1 small bunch fresh basil (about 20 leaves)

2 teaspoons course salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute the onion and garlic, stirring, until lightly browned. Add the tomatoes with about half of their juices (discarding the rest), the herb sprigs and basil, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered for about 25 to 30 minutes or until thickened.

Remove and discard the herb sprigs. Stir in the salt and season with pepper, to taste. Reserve about 1 cup for penne vodka. Store the remaining sauce, covered in the fridge up to 3 days or freeze up to 2 months.

Now that we have the marinara out of the way, it’s time to get back to the main dish.

Steve’s Penne Vodka

Ingredients

½ – ¾ cup aglio (olive oil and 4 cloves garlic, minced)

½ cup prosciutto, chopped

¼ cup vodka

1 cup marinara sauce

2 ¼ cups heavy cream

About 4 handfuls grated Romano cheese

1 pound penne, cooked al dente (cook the penne ahead of time and set aside until ready to add to the sauce)

Heat the aglio in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Watch for the oil to get bubbly and the garlic to soften and dance in the pan. Add the prosciutto, stirring quickly. Get ready for the tricky part now. Pull pan away from heat and add vodka. (When I tried this at home on an electric stove, I was both disappointed and relieved that there were no flames. Perhaps you only get flames when cooking with gas.) Just in case you get flames, make sure you keep the pan away from yourself, others and anything flammable. Either way, return pan back to heat; move the pan back and forth, letting the flame go out — if you got that burst — and reduce it for a few seconds while the alcohol burns off.

Add the marinara and heavy cream. The sauce should be a light pink color. Add about four generous handfuls of the Romano. Stir sauce and let it simmer to thicken, about three minutes. If it’s too thin, you can add more Romano. If it’s too thick, you can add a little more sauce. When it’s a nice consistency, add the already cooked penne. Stir and allow the sauce to coat the noodles. Serve with grated Romano and garlic bread.

If you are feeling ambitious and want to add chicken, shrimp or scallops, simply add your choice after the prosciutto and let it cook through. Then proceed with the rest of the steps.

If you are feeling decidedly unambitious and want Steve to prepare it, there’s always that. He mentioned another specialty of his, Tuscan Chicken, that I look forward to trying.

Buon appetito!

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