June 20, 2018
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Love and community on the menu at Cleonice’s ‘Big Night’

By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff

The pig arrived on Thursday. Or, rather, Rich and Cary Hanson drove from Ellsworth to Charleston and back to retrieve the animal from their butcher and bring it to their restaurant, Cleonice Mediterranean Bistro. The pig would be one of the stars of the show on Sunday, and it had to be ready for its closeup. Its delicious, slow-roasted, over-the-top closeup.

Sunday was a big night indeed, as the Hansons and their trusted staff at Cleonice prepared and presented one of their favorite meals of the year: the annual “Big Night” wine dinner, a sumptuous feast inspired by the 1996 movie of the same name. The event, now in its fifth year, is a hit with patrons, who reserve the Sunday between the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl every year to eat, drink and be exultantly merry.

“We do all kinds of wine dinners, and they can get a little uptight,” said Hanson, a James Beard Award-nominated chef who, with Cleonice, was among the first to bring Spanish-style tapas to Maine when it opened 10 years ago. “This one is a party. This one is always a good time. Everyone’s friends by the end. And it gets bigger and bigger every year.”

Over its five years, the dinner has attracted a devoted crowd of fans, as well as plenty of newcomers each year. At $76 including wine pairings, it’s a splurge — but oh, what a treat it is.

“Oh, the food is just divine,” said Mount Desert Island resident Chris Luck, who has attended the dinner every year with his wife, Mia. “We look forward to it every year. I would never miss it. It’s just the most fun evening, and the food is really incredible. It’s got complicated flavors, and bold wine pairings. It’s a real love letter to food. It’s a great night.”

In Hanson’s view, there are three great movies about food. “Eat Drink Man Woman,” Ang Lee’s paean to love, marriage and food, is one of them; “Babette’s Feast,” about a Danish housekeeper’s gift of a meal to end all meals, is the another. But “Big Night,” in his eyes, is the best one of all.

“It’s got the most heart,” said Hanson. “It’s the most fun.”

In it, brothers Primo (Tony Shaloub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also directed) run a failing Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. In a desperate attempt to save their business, the gifted chef Primo plans an unbelievable multicourse meal to wow patrons and to attract the attention of famed jazz musician Louis Prima, who rival restaurateur Pascal says will show up on the big night. While their relationships both familial and romantic collapse around them, the dinner itself is a truly unforgettable experience — Primo is a master of traditional Italian cuisine, in opposition to the “spaghetti houses” the American public seemd to prefer at that time.

Recreating the meal takes days of preparation. There’s the careful selection of the antipasti, which comprise the first two courses of the meal; he orders much of the artisan salumi from Salumaria Bialisi in New York. Then there’s the pig, which must be specially butchered by Maple Lane Farms in Charleston. The fish, too, is sourced locally, and the wine pairings are suggested by the folks at Wicked Wines distribution company. A light dessert ends the repast — anything larger than a simple treat would surely send diners over the edge.

“It’s a big procedure,” said Hanson. “We couldn’t possibly serve every dish that’s in the movie. People would be falling asleep by the end of the night. We can do a lot of it in advance. But keep in mind, we do it all over again for the staff after everyone leaves. We’re all here until 1 or 2 in the morning. It’s quite a night.”

The centerpiece of the meal is the Timpano, an Italian dish that is made only in the most special of circumstances. A huge pasta shell is filled with, as Hanson says, “all the good things on Earth,” like ham, sausage, multiple cheeses, tomatoes, bechamel sauce, more pasta — you get the idea. Hanson and staff crank out several Timpanos, and every year, it’s always a bit anxiety-inducing to see if the drum-like creation will hold its shape as it leaves the pan.

“We flip it over and start banging on the bottom of the pan with wooden spoons,” said Hanson. “It’s as much a feat of architecture as it is cooking. But then we roll it out on the cart and everyone goes ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh.’ We tried making mini timpanos one year, but it’s just not the same.”

The night before the dinner, the staff watches the movie, so the dialogue is fresh in their minds for the meal and they’re able to quote freely from it. During the dinner, Hanson regularly tells people to be on the lookout for Louis Prima — he promises he’ll show up eventually. In the movie, he never does, to the crushing disappointment of Primo and Secondo, who’ve bet it all on Prima’s recommendation.

Chris Luck, the regular Cleonice patron, believes that the movie and the reality of Cleonice are very similar, more than on just one night a year.

“I think [the movie is] a wonderful expression of love between these brothers, who are trying to educate the populace as to what real Italian cuisine is,” said Luck. “I think a lot of what Rich and Cary have done in Ellsworth is the same thing. They came into a town that had nothing like Cleonice. It was pretty daring. I think there’s a direct comparison to be made about their trying to expand the palates of Down East, and the brothers in ‘Big Night’ doing the same with New Jersey. That’s why it’s so special.”

Cleonice is located at 112 Main Street in downtown Ellsworth. To make a reservation, call 664-7554, or visit cleonice.com.

The big move, for Cleonice

If all goes as planned, this year will be the last year the “Big Night” dinner is offered at their current location at 112 Main Street. As of the beginning of 2012, Rich and Cary have taken over management of The Maine Grind, the coffee shop just up the street from Cleonice, located in the Old Mason Hall. By the summer, they hope to move Cleonice from its smaller location to the much bigger one at the Grind. Where the current spot can only seat about 80 diners, the new spot could double that.

“While we love our current space and have a lot of sentimental attachment to it, it’s just not big enough. There’s too many problems with it. We turn away as many people as we seat,” said Cary Hanson. “We’ll have so many more options by moving to the larger space at the Grind.”

In the meantime, the Hansons are still running the Grind as a coffee shop, though they have introduced new homemade soups and bakery items, as well as 44 North Coffee out of Deer Isle, to compliment their already popular usage of Rock City Coffee. They’re also in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to build a pizza oven at the Grind so they can begin offering artisan pizza to the Ellsworth area. As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, they have raised over $6,000 of the $20,000 needed to build the oven and complete other renovations. There are nine days left for the campaign.

“We really like the fact that this is a way to really involve the community in what its downtown looks like, and what its options are for food and art and everything,” said Cary Hanson. “We’re committed to Ellsworth, and we want to be a permanent part of this community in an even bigger way.”

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