Tag Archives: Conte’s 1894 restaurant

Searching for John Conte

14 Jul

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.