Published Date Written by Timothy GillisPORTLAND — Three weeks of European football and local ethnic foods culminated with Spain crowned champions of Europe.
As Spain defeated Italy 4-0 in the final match of the European Championship on Sunday, July 1, this writer was wrapping up a soccer-infused tour of local eateries, complete with game coverage.
The fare included Greek gyros, French crepes and Polish hunter's stew. A fanatic for football (in the United States, it's soccer), and a foodie (although I always thought I was just a chowhound), I spent three weeks digesting every pass, shot, save and goal in the European Championships, held in Poland and the Ukraine. The tournament is held every four years, two years off the World Cup, and is for most aficionados a better contest since, although the flair of Brazil and personality of Argentina's Lionel Messi are missed, there are no weak teams, no weak group qualifiers from Slovenia or Australia.
Four groups of four, instead of the World Cup's eight groups of four. Sixteen sweet teams, from the tournament's kick-off. Every game matters. Every goal matters.
This excursion stretched across the tournament's Group Stage: June 8-19; quarterfinals, June 21-24; semifinals, June 27-28; and Final, July 1.
So I ventured out, looking for the best places to watch Euro 2012 and to enjoy the ethnic foods of the teams playing each game. By the end of three weeks, I was able to watch 31 matches in 11 restaurants and a barn.
• The opening game featured co-host Poland against the champs two times ago, Greece. I took in the first half at Dimitri's in Scarborough. The owner, Angelo Roumeliotis, was away with his son, Dimitri, 16, at an Olympic Development Tournament. His wife, Bessie, was watching the game, and served up an excellent Greek meal to kick off the game. She made tsatsiki (or tzatziki), which is yogurt, garlic and cucumber, and served it with pita bread, "thicker than Syrian bread," she noted. She also served grape leaves, made of rice and spices. "All good for you: homemade," she said.
On the drive to Bogusha's Polish Restaurant on Stevens Avenue in Portland, I realize that Greece needs to change their game plan, which was predicated on keeping a clean sheet (what Americans call a shutout), maybe grabbing one on a counter. Greece won the finals of this tournament in 2004 against the host and heavily favored Portugal, 1-0. The second half food for this match consists of potato pancake and bigos, or hunter's stew, which is sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, kielbasa and tomato. Bogusha Pawlaczyk, the owner of Bogusha's Polish Restaurant, moved to Portland 25 years ago from Greece (oddly, the contestant in today's match), where she lived for a year. She was born in Walcz, Poland. Marek Kwasnik was also at Bogusha's, enjoying the game. He was born in southeast Poland, close to the Ukraine, tournament co-host. He spent seven or eight years in Krakow in south central Poland. "John Paul II was from there," he said by way of geographic explanation. We talked about the differences between this sport in America and this sport everywhere else. "In Poland, is like a rock concert," he said. As the game ended, talk turned to the local high brand of the world's most popular sport. Pawlaczyk's nephew, Jakub Rucinski, played at Deering High School during its recent heyday. "His name is Jakob, but we would go to the games and yell 'Kuba! Kuba!' He was the best player on the team," she said. Her familial loyalties aside, Kuba was one of several talented players who helped Deering to a western Maine semifinal. • For the opening day's second game, I was in search of Russian and Czech food. In Westbrook, I met Luba Gorelov, from Kazakhstan. Gorelov moved to Westbrook 15 years ago. She has operated Medeo European food market on Main Street in Westbrook for seven years now. I bought Russian traditional-style salmon caviar, Finn crisp thin rye crispbread, Halva, a dessert made of sunflower seeds, and Zefer, which are cookies like marshmallow. Before I could start my snacks, Russia jumped out to an early lead. They went on to win, 4-1, and my stomach rumbled to an opening day halt. • Day Two saw the Netherlands against Denmark. I'm watching from home, enjoying some Danish pastry with my younger son, Owen. This tournament often brings shock results, and on day two, Denmark beating Netherlands has to count as one. • We catch Germany vs. Portugal at RiRa's. Then, we grabbed a halftime cab for GR DiMillo's to see Germany beat Portugal 1-0 in Saturday's contest.
• Day Three, Sunday, features Spain and Italy, so I figured there would be plenty of culinary options. Joe's New York Italian-style Pizza, on Fore Street, might not have been the best choice on a day when Old Port Festers were out in droves. Aamir Shaikh, the regional manager, says he is a soccer fan, but the festival has him slinging pizzas. He points me upstairs to the air-conditioned bar where the game is on and line-ups are being introduced. The teams play to a 1-1 tie.
• I watch the first half of the Ireland vs. Croatia game at Bull Feeney's with Doug Fuss, publican. He blames Shay Given, the Irish goalie, for the first score. "He should have had it," Fuss said. He loves soccer, he says, but finds the television poor for his pub's ambience. "The 'craic' is better without TV, but I will turn a TV on for soccer," Fuss says, using the Gaelic term for barroom banter. Ireland ties it, but Croatia scores a second, although from an offsides position. I give RiRa's another try for the second half. They serve a Dubliner burger, ground lamb and rosemary patty, grilled red onion, crumbled goat cheese, curry mayonnaise. The delicious Irish burger counterbalances the poor Irish play. First round play wrapped up with a predicable tie between England and France, and a surprise win for host Ukraine over favored Sweden, with the ageless Andrei Shevchenko scoring two goals to come from behind and win.
• For second round play and the France vs. Ukraine game, I take in the action with Jean-Claude Vassalle, owner of the Merry Table, restaurant-creperie on Wharf Street in Portland. The French onion soup kicks off the meal, and the game, followed by a cordon bleu crepe with chicken, Black Forest ham, blue cheese, Swiss cheese, and tomato. He also offers jambon Brie and a mexane crepe, a spicy combination of pulled chicken, sour cream, mild chilli peppers, cheddar cheese, and cilantro. "I call it the mexane because of the guacamole," Vassalle says. For dessert, I have the Suzette, a sugar, butter, orange, and grand marnier concoction. Vassalle was born in Lyon, and moved in 1984 to Miami, then California, then New York, before landing in Maine. "I was always in the restaurant business, and wines, too — I had my own store," he says. Vassalle was a sommelier in Greenwich, Connecticut, and had a shop called Continental Wine and Spirits. The Merry Table menu also features crevettes, bouillabaisse, and a croque monsieur sandwich of broiled ham, Swiss cheese, and bechamel on white bread. Vassalle moved to Maine five years ago, when he was keen to bring culture francais to the Old Port. Every first and third Thursday of the month, Vassalle welcomes diners to spend an evening at the Merry Table speaking French only. The menu is a la carte (i.e., you can order whatever you like) with no set price and no obligation. There is also live French music. • England's second game, a thrilling comeback for the Three Lions against Sweden, featured fish and chips from Brian Boru's. I know it's Irish, not English, but it's also Bloomsday the next day, the start of third-round play when games become more tense than ever.
• In the third round, I watch a game with Robert Jasiulewicz, a Polish team supporter, at Boru's. He is inconsolable as the Poles play poorly, and the Czechs rebound from first-game misery to win the group.
• I watched the final Group C games between Italy/Ireland and Spain/Croatia at Billy's Chowder House, on Mile Road in Wells. Despite not being known as a sports venue, Billy's has both games on, on adjacent TVs, with a beautiful view of the Webhannet River as it flows through the Rachel Carson Wildlife Preserve and empties in the Atlantic Ocean. • For the Germany-Greece game, I return to Dimitri's to watch the game with Angelo. Germany look unbeatable, but when Georgios Samaras ties it, 1-1, in the second half, Angelo believes Greece can repeat the magic of two Euros ago. The elation is fleeting, however, as Germany adds three more before Greece nabs a late penalty to make it seem closer.
In the other two quarter-finals, Spain handles France, 2-0, and England loses to Italy on penalties, a particularly typical manner by which the Brits go home.
• For the first semi-final, Spain knocks Portugal out on penalties. For the second semi, I head to Schulte & Herr, on Cumberland Avenue, in Portland. Owners Steffi and Brian Davin moved to western Massachusetts in 2009, and Maine in 2011. Steffi is from Paderborn, in the former West Germany. Schulte and Herr have been open since last year. The restaurant is named after Steffi's mother's maiden name, Schulte. Brian's great grandmother was named Herr. They served the roasted bratwurst with sauerkraut & German potato salad, as well as several breads including a rye sourdough with honey and molasses, sunflower and flax seeds. The bread was served with liptauer, a dip with cream cheese, sour cream, cornichons (small gerkins), carroway, capers, and sweet hungarian paprika.
• The Davins were leaving to watch the game at Harro's Barn on Pitt Street. I had heard of this infamous spot for real soccer fans, so I gladly tagged along. Several members of the German-American Society were there to root for the Germans, but Balotelli was too much for them, scoring twice to see them off, and send Italy into the final, a replay of their 1-1 group game with Spain. Kerry Anderson, who works at S&H, is American but fluent in German. She taught at Lawrence High School where she created an on-line German course for high school students. She now teaches German immersion mornings at Breakwater with Sonja Beeker. • At Harro's, Jakel and Betsy Whitman's house on Pitt Street, soccer is a way of life. The driveway is marked off for several young soccer players, who live the game while their parents watch on a huge projection screen. Harro and Betsy were in New York, but the Barn was open for folks to watch the game. Jus Van Mierlo, of Rotterdam, Netherlands, supports Feyenoord. Andre Bellows, an American-German/Dutch/Frenchman who was born in South Africa, goes back and forth with Van Mierlo, bantering about the match and hitting the buffet table. Jakel is from the Hannover area in Germany and supports Bayern Munich. The people here to watch the game are from all over the world, the buffet table a true smorgasbord of European foods. It seems I had traveled a long way to wind up down the street.