Valentina to feature locally sourced food, casual atmosphere

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Jun 23, 2014
Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds Chef Michael MacDonnel wants diners at Camden's new restaurant, Valentina, to feel they are eating at his home. He previously worked at Natalie's at Camden Harbor Inn and Hartstone Inn.

Camden — Michael Sanfilipo, owner of the new restaurant Valentina Coastal Maine Kitchen at 20 Washington St., wants to offer customers “upscale comfort food.”

He learned to cook from his Italian grandmother, a chef trained in Rome, who owned restaurants in Boston and Los Angeles. He and his wife, Olga, have also owned restaurants in California. Michael was born in Massachusetts, Olga in Kiev, Ukraine. They came to Camden recently from Florida, and opened their restaurant – named for Olga's mother – June 17.

The Sanfilipos were looking for a small-town coastal location to start a new restaurant, Michael said. They visited Camden last year and liked it, so they spent a winter to make sure they wanted to be here year-round. And they decided to stay.

Their chef is familiar to area diners: Michael MacDonnel was executive sous-chef at Natalie's at the Camden Harbor Inn and also worked at the Hartstone Inn. Sanfilipo said he had interviewed scores of candidates before he met MacDonnel, and the two found their food philosophies were in sync right away.

Sanfilipo was attracted by the many small farms and the farm-to-table movement in the area, he said. He wants to cater to local residents, staying open as much of the year as possible. Dishes will use local meats, vegetables, seafood and other products extensively, for an experience that is “fine dining in a casual atmosphere,” he said.

MacDonnel described his approach to cooking as “complicated simplicity,” that is, combining simple, fresh ingredients so that they complement each other and finding ways to blend and enhance the natural flavors of food.

“You don't have to do much with beautiful ingredients,” he said.

He will get some ingredients, such as wild watercress, mushrooms, fiddle heads and wild oysters, from a local forager, as well as drawing on contacts with area farmers. He and Sanfilipo both said they wanted to offer items to appeal to diners with food sensitivities or who are vegetarian or vegan. When people call for reservations, they will ask whether anyone in the party has special dietary needs, Sanfilipo said.

He wants customers to feel they are dining at his home, MacDonnel said, and is willing to make an alternative version of a dish to accommodate a patron's dietary needs.

For example, he wants vegans to get a tasty, balanced meal, not just a plate of vegetables. He can eliminate flour from sauces and soups by using Arborio rice as a thickener, and substitutes coconut milk for dairy in some dishes.

However, “I'm not afraid of butter and cream,” he said, indicating that those ingredients would also be featured in some meals. He prefers to use less salt and more of other spices and seasonings to bring out the natural flavor of his food.

“It's about combining the flavors and getting a balance,” he said.

One special feature of the menu will be the small plates offered as an alternative to the full entrees on the menu. These will allow diners who do not want a large meal a variety of options suited to their appetite. Sanfilipo plans to have a daily seafood special, another entree special and a small plate special.

He enjoys building relationships with guests and hopes that the welcome he and his wife offer, in addition to the food and atmosphere, will keep customers coming back.

For now, the restaurant will not be open for lunch, but it is available for private functions during the day, with a seating capacity of 60.

Valentina has a full bar; it starts serving dinner at 5 p.m., with the last reservation at 9 p.m., and is open every day except Tuesday. Sanfilipo said a website would be ready within a few weeks. The phone number is 230-8145.

The front door on Washington Street is painted lemon yellow to make it easy to find.

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