December 10, 2018
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How a ‘diner on acid’ shook up coastal Maine’s restaurant scene

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
The Cafe Miranda in Rockland.

ROCKLAND, Maine — When chef Kerry Altiero rolled through Rockland one February in the early 1990s, he wasn’t setting out to be the hot new thing in what was then a rough-around-the-edges fishing community.

All he wanted was to own a building that would be a “neighborhood place” for the community.

In June 1993, Altiero opened Cafe Miranda, just off Main Street, and Rockland’s food scene hasn’t been the same since.

“I’m just as surprised as you are, or as anybody else is, that not only we survived but that we’re still vital to the community in every way,” Altiero said.

It’s nearly impossible to tuck Miranda — as Altiero and locals affectionately refer to the establishment — into a specific category of restaurant.

The space itself hits you with a vibe of metal meets retro meets kitschy, decked out with funky salt and pepper shakers, a collection of Elvis memorabilia large enough to make your great-aunt jealous and, of course, the restaurant’s signature flamingos.

Then there’s the menu, which will take you around the globe and back but through the lens of Altiero’s rock ‘n’ roll mentality. Altiero calls Miranda “ a diner on acid.”

His food has gained statewide recognition, but he’s not serving up an ounce of pretension.

“It’s all about the way we perceive ourselves,” Altiero said. “We’re really serious about the food, but we’re not serious about ourselves.”

‘The right place for the wrong people’

At the time Altiero and his ex-wife and former business partner, Evelyn Donnelly, set out to open Cafe Miranda, there were about six or seven restaurants in Rockland. Altiero described the food options in the small coastal city in the early 1990s as “mid-’60s continental dining.”

When as part of the code enforcement process, Rockland Fire Department officials asked where the restaurant’s deep fryer was going. Altiero’s answer was simple and stunning: there wouldn’t be one.

Instead, a wood-fired oven would be the center of the restaurant — a statement that obviously put fire officials on edge.

From the wood-fired oven, to an open kitchen format and locally sourced ingredients, Altiero was doing something with food that was ahead of the curve for Maine — and he was trying to do it in Rockland during a time when the city was still trying to shed its fishy and gritty reputation.

“We looked like effin’ crazy people,” he said.

But taking a bet on Rockland paid off, Alterio said, for the community and for the restaurant.

“This is the right place for the wrong people. All of us here are given the freedom to be who we are, in Rockland in general and Maine in general,” Altiero said. “Maine is remarkably forgiving of the eccentricities in folks. There has to be something in the ground here, because why?”

Altiero said he and his staff work hard to make sure that the founding principles of Cafe Miranda — “honesty, integrity, passion and a little sass” — come through in everything they do.

“Who doesn’t want to hang out with a group of people like that?” Altiero asked, whether you’re working with them or eating with them.

During its 25 years in business in Rockland, Cafe Miranda staff has seen the loyalty in generations of customers coming through the doors.

“It’s a place in the community where people are really making memories, and they have fond ties of coming here as a child and then bringing a first date,” Casey Cale, who runs the restaurant’s catering operation, said. “I think it can be something different for everyone who walks in the door.”

A neighborhood place

Rockland has changed substantially in the more than two decades Cafe Miranda has called the city home. While there were only a handful of restaurants to choose from in 1993, now there are dozens.

But Cafe Miranda staff doesn’t see the growth in Rockland’s restaurant scene as competition; they’re here to help the new folks succeed.

“Rockland has the best of it all. They have the high-class galleries, they have the beautiful art, they have the culture. They have all of that, but at the same time, it’s still a working waterfront,” Cale said. “[Having more restaurants] just improves the quality of Rockland in general.”

Setting out to establish a neighborhood place 25 years ago, Altiero has achieved that standing and then some. Now, he and the Cafe Miranda team are using their brand’s leverage to give back to the community.

In June, Cafe Miranda hosted a 25th anniversary “Flock Party,” partnering with Hannaford to raise more than $17,000 for the Knox County Homeless Coalition.

Later this summer, Cafe Miranda will be working on an event with Trekker’s, a Thomaston-based youth organization. Altiero said they want to focus their efforts on raising money for organizations that support local children and help with addiction and recovery.

Looking forward, Altiero sees decades worth of anniversaries for Cafe Miranda. By employing a staff who works with the same integrity and passion and “zen with danger” attitude he founded the restaurant on, he’s confident Miranda will always stay true to its funky form.

“Whatever changes [in Rockland], we’ll still be the same thing,” Altiero said. “We’ll still be just as vital no matter what is going on, which just stuns the hell out of me.”

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