About a year ago, Mike Nappi of Portland took a leap of faith and bought the Fishermen’s Grill restaurant at 849 Forest Avenue in Portland. Nappi, a 2002 graduate of Deering High, quickly took the place from a struggling also-ran on the fringes of the Portland restaurant scene to a tourist hot spot and local favorite.
The charming hole in the wall seafood joint, tucked unpretentiously across the street from Baxter Woods in an area that’s traditionally been hard on restaurant owners, is known for their large portions and fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
As of last week they’re also becoming known for their national ranking of 60th best restaurant in the entire country and the number one (I repeat, NUMBER ONE) seafood restaurant in all of New England.
The rankings come from a Top 100 list put out by Yelp.com, the leading website in customer rankings and reviews. According to the people at Yelp, they used a scoring system based on the Wilson Score to figure out the rankings. They looked at each restaurant’s star rating and how many reviews they had, then compiled the list based on those factors. No other restaurant from Maine made the list.
Nappi, a good friend of mine since grade school, understands that as a seafood spot, it’s difficult to set himself apart. He has family ties reaching all throughout Portland’s Italian restaurant scene including icons like the DiMillos, the Espositos, the Ananias, the Napolitanos, and of course, the Nappis.
Nappi does almost all of the cooking himself, so while he cranked out orders for the steady stream of customers filing in from the chilly February weather he explained over the roar of the grill fans, “I never went to culinary school or anything, but in my family you’ve got to know how to cook. I had always wanted to have my own restaurant, but never thought I’d have the opportunity. When I got the chance to buy this place, I jumped at it and just threw myself into it full bore. I went all in financially, so I knew if I screwed it up I was gonna be in big trouble. Failure really isn’t an option for me, I have to make it work. When I first opened up I was putting in 100 hour weeks and not paying myself anything. Now I’m still putting in the same hours, but all the work is starting to finally pay off.”
I asked him about his reaction to seeing the Yelp Top 100 list, “Dude I started dancing around singing!” he exclaimed with a laugh. Nappi’s sous chef and cousin, Mike Szalanski chimed in from the register, “he’s not lying, we were so pumped.”
“I try to approach it with a simple philosophy,” Nappi explained, “I put a lot of thought into my recipes, and a lot of love into my cooking. When you combine that with only the freshest local ingredients coming right off the docks in Portland you really can’t go wrong.”
Szalanski, although he agrees that the recipes and ingredients are important, thinks the new restaurant’s success has more to do with the value and service that Fishermen’s Grill offers, “there are a lot of places around here that use the same great ingredients that we use, but they charge an arm and a leg for tiny little portions. We get a kick out of seeing people’s reactions to the size of our meals, and we do our best to give our customers a memorable experience.”
The tiny space only has 6 or 7 tables and Nappi, a naturally gregarious character with an infectious chuckle, seems at ease chatting it up with the customers. “We get people from all over the world coming here for Maine seafood. Last summer we were absolutely slammed every day. People were waiting for two hours in line. Even now during the slow months we still get tourists coming in all day long because they read about us on Yelp and they want an authentic experience.”
Speaking of authentic, when I asked him where his recipes come from, a smile spread across Nappi’s face as he pointed to his head, “only a few other people in the world know my recipes, and I keep them all right in the vault. Nothing’s written down.” With that he threw some parsley on a bowl of seafood chowder and shoved it at me, “eat this, it’ll hold you over until your burger’s ready.”
That’s right folks, Fishermen’s Grill also does burgers, and boy do they do them well. In an effort to create a stronger local following Nappi started a winter time special, selling quarter pound premium beef burgers for just $1.50. “I wanted to give people another reason to come in here besides just the seafood. I get all my beef from Pat’s Meat Market, which as any Portlander knows, makes for an excellent burger.”
For a guy who never went to college, Nappi displays a remarkable business sense. “The burger idea has worked out great, it’s to the point where we’re selling out of burger meat almost every day now and it’s almost entirely locals who are ordering them.”
He also has a food challenge on his menu that features his three pound lobster roll which is named “The Franklin”, “because it costs more than a hundred bucks,” he says with a laugh. The challenge also includes “a huge pile of onion rings, cole slaw, and soda”. “You’d have to be insane to try and eat The Franklin all by yourself,” Szalanski chuckled as he grabbed an order from Nappi through the service window, “that thing is ridiculous.”
Nappi then began constructing my lunch, a burger which he calls “The Coma Burger” because “it’ll make you wanna take a nap”. The Coma Burger, which costs $6, consists of one pound of beef, bacon, barbecue sauce, sriracha sauce, onions, cheese, lettuce and tomato. It was immense, and lived up to it’s billing- as soon as I got home I laid down for a contented snooze.
Whether you’re looking for the best seafood New England has to offer, a top quality burger at fast food prices, or just a good laugh and a welcome environment- give Fishermen’s Grill a visit to see what all the fuss is about.
Mike Nappi will be there, happy to remind you what good food is really all about.