At their second restaurant, a Portland couple maintains a fine balance of food and family.
In Italian piccolo means “tiny.” It’s the name of the first restaurant Ilma Lopez and her husband, Damian Sansonetti, opened in Portland, in 2013. The intimate spot in the Old Port has been lauded for its modern take on the cuisine of central and southern Italy. Chaval, the Spanish word for “little kid,” is the couple’s newest venture, and an apt moniker for their second eatery. The words also describe the growth of their daughter Isabella, now four years old, from baby to preschooler. As she has grown, so has the couple’s reputation and following. “We’re older and fully focused,” says Lopez. “It’s our name, our team, and everything we do will reflect on our daughter.” Their passion and professionalism, combined with a knack for knowing what diners want, have made Chaval a crowd-pleaser since the day it opened this past July. “Knock on wood,” says Lopez.
The couple need not rely on luck, having established Chaval with a solid and appealing concept. “We knew what direction it would take,” says Lopez. “We like to plan.” They envisioned a restaurant where everyone felt welcome, with personal but not overwhelming attention to diners’ needs. They took over the location in the West End where neighborhood favorite Caiola’s stood for more than a decade. A renovation gave the space new life and lightness, completely opening up the kitchen and giving the bar a more sophisticated vibe. “What you see now has been in our heads for a year and a half,” Lopez says. “We did the design ourselves, painted, polished, and sanded.” Sansonetti says he loves the open kitchen because he can watch the reaction of diners as they get their dishes.
The Chaval menu is a reflection of the couple’s previous experiences and travel, especially to Spain, where Lopez has lived and worked. Last winter, she and Sansonetti took their first vacation in five years there, eating, drinking, and generally reaffirming their essential ideas for Chaval. The menu offers “choose your own experience” options, ranging from starters that are no more than a few bites, to family-style dishes to be shared by the whole table. Order a drink and something from the “To Start and Esnack” section, while you peruse the rest of the offerings. (“Esnack” is a gentle tease on Lopez’s Venezuelan accent.) It might be the garlicky tomato toast, a staple at tapas bars, or perhaps the beef tartare with fried quail egg. The “Stuck in the Middle” section of the menu offers slightly larger tastes from a remarkably wide variety of offerings. This is where you’ll find patatas bravas with spicy aioli, octopus a la plancha, house-made pâtés, and seasonal salads. The “Forks and Knives” section features entree- size dishes. The slow-baked hake with charred cauliflower is exemplary, perfectly cooked, and punctuated with queen olives from Spain, which add a pleasant hit of saltiness. Sansonetti picks up fresh fish every morning, using it in items like swordfish belly empanadas and daily specials. Coq au vin is a Sansonetti specialty, and at Chaval it’s offered “la familia” style, served in Le Creuset Dutch ovens for the whole table. It’s fun to watch servers lift the lid, letting loose the mouthwatering aroma. “It’s a humble dish, but presented in a more refined way,” he says, “with big, fat button mushrooms and bacon lardons.” Sansonetti will also be cooking up other family-style dishes to encourage sharing, including whole fish and more braises for the cold weather.
The chef is well versed in Spanish wines that complement Chaval’s food. His current personal favorites include the Albamar albarino, from a vineyard they visited in Galicia, and Lopez gravonia, a more complex, golden-hued classic. Mas Fi is the house cava, the iconic sparkling wine of Spain. The wine list is concise and focused, as is the cocktail menu. Patrick McDonald, a Portland bartending veteran, has created drinks rooted in the classics, but “revitalized and reinterpreted, incorporating new flavor profiles that work with the cuisine.” The Spanish G and T has become a bar favorite, served in a large goblet and chilled with an oversized grapefruit cube. Much attention is paid to sherry and vermouth, the traditional aperitifs of Spain. “Vermouth is a stand-alone drink,” says McDonald, “and very popular in
Spanish culture.” Chaval is likely the only place in Maine to have Manzanilla sherry on tap, available by the glass or by the carafe.
A visit to Chaval is incomplete without one of Lopez’s desserts. She was a 2017 semifinalist for a James Beard award in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category, a remarkable achievement in the ultracompetitive national arena. Lopez offers her own versions of French and Spanish classics, including crisp and hot churros with salted sugar and warm chocolate sauce for dipping. Île flottante, a dessert not often seen on local menus, is a dreamy cloud of meringue atop a sea of custard, roasted seasonal fruit, and sorbet. “And where else can you get lemony madeleines, baked to order?” asks Lopez, rhetorically.
Thanks to dedicated teams at both restaurants, the couple has been able to get Chaval on its feet while still maintaining a presence at Piccolo. “Having Luke Aberle in the kitchen and Kelly Nelson in the front of the house at Piccolo gives us the freedom to do both places and be sane,” says Lopez. “And when we go to Piccolo, we can count on Kirby Scholl, Stephanie Perkins, and the Chaval crew to make that work. We couldn’t do this without both teams and family by our side.”
I’ve never been to Spain, but I imagine a tapas place might feel very similar to Chaval: a sense of community and belonging, in the kitchen and for guests, with casual but accomplished cuisine. “If we’re lucky, we’ll make everyone happy,” says Sansonetti.