Love it or hate it, Conte's 1894 is certainly a Maine attraction
ROCKLAND, Maine -- Like a bunker behind an impenetrable wall of aged lobster crates draped with old fishing nets, Conte's 1894 Restaurant looks defiant, ready to do battle and repel any campaign to clean up its unruly act and conform with the beautification of downtown Rockland.
With its sagging asphalt roof and ship lights, lobster traps, and other marine paraphernalia cluttering the yard, this dockside establishment is not free of controversy. Locals either love it, arguing that the quirky seafood joint has character, or hate it, calling it an eyesore at odds with the snappy boutiques and eating establishments lining Main Street.
John Conte, the lone figure seen darting about behind the kitchen windows from before dawn until late at night, is the heart and soul of Conte's. Open 363 days of the year, except Christmas and New Year's, the restaurant is kept warm by a pot-bellied stove in winter. Candles plunked in wax-encrusted wine bottles supply dim lighting, causing some customers to bring flashlights. Newspapers serve as tablecloths and the menu is scrawled day-to-day on a suspended roll of butcher paper. Sawdust used to cover the floor, but local officials declared it flammable and hazardous and ordered it removed.
Don't expect anyone to recite the specials. Conte's waitresses are famous for being cheeky. They have been known to walk out, leaving a local physician, court stenographer, newspaper reporters, and other customers to bus tables.
Such irreverence and lack of pretense is what charms Conte's defenders.
"It's like a floor show. They just don't care," declared Emmet Meara , Bangor Daily News columnist, remembering one longtime waitress who sharpened her acid tongue on customers. "Abuse is all part of it."
Conte, whose godfather, Carmine Russo Sr., was an important player in New York's Fulton Fish Market, does the cooking, from the freshly homemade peasant bread to the seared tuna steak served with heaps of linguine al dente topped with spicy marinara sauce.
Simply cooked with garlic and olive oil, all entrees ($7-$25) come with huge garden salads. Wine, beer, and soda are served, but fussy drinkers can and should bring their own. There is no dessert.
On a February morning, when the mercury read 2 degrees below zero outside, Conte was bundled up in two wool sweaters layered under a hooded gray sweatshirt. With his curly black hair tied in a ponytail, the 60-something chef looks like an artist or fishmonger. He's been both. The painting of sunflower-filled vases -- done on an old wooden door with leftover house paint -- is among his whimsical pieces hanging in the restaurant.
Conte hails from Mount Kisco, N.Y., and a family of Italian fishmongers whose roots go back to the Mount Vesuvius area in Italy. One of five children, he grew up in Conte ' s Quality Seafood Inc . He sat on the curb and took orders from movie stars like Jackie Gleason and Tallulah Bankhead . Nowadays, Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren are among the celebrities who frequent the retail fish store that turns into a B.Y.O.B. restaurant at night.
"I didn't want to go to school," says Conte. He produces a pair of large forged tongs he used to handle 300-pound ice blocks at the seafood shop. "During Christmas, we had over 1,000 pounds of live eel in the basement."
As a little boy, standing atop a halibut box, Conte learned to make marinara sauce and other basics of Italian cooking. He also got to know every kind of seafood, from squid to swordfish. At Conte's, he prides himself on keeping the preparation simple in order to highlight the fresh seafood such as sea scallops or Atlantic salmon.
When the restaurant opens at 5 p.m., Conte doesn't engage in chat. He rarely emerges from the kitchen, even on a slow February night. But his presence is felt through his eclectic music, which ranges from Édith Piaf and Hank Williams to the "My Fair Lady" soundtrack. He cranks Los Lobos' "La Bamba" near closing time.
"I have probably been cooking longer than any other punk on this planet," Conte says. "I don't come to this life to take. I come more to give than to take."
Letitia Baldwin, a freelance writer in Gouldsboro, Maine, can be reached at email@example.com.