Photo and story by Timothy Gillis
PORTLAND – Three weeks of European football and local ethnic foods culminated with Spain crowned champions of Europe – as well as the world – and me the restaurant recipient of such fantastic fare as Greek gyros, French crepes, and Polish hunter’s stew. A fanatic for football (we say soccer here), and a foodie (although I always thought I was just a chowhound), I spent the last 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. The first three games are group play, with the top two teams of each group moving on to the knockout round. But still, every game matters. Every goal matters, as superior goal difference is a tiebreaker if three teams are level on points at the end of group play (three games).
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 thirty-one matches in eleven 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. I took a gyro and a Greek salad to go. Robert Lewandowski, Polish striker reportedly headed to Manchester United, scored the tourney’s opener, and I left Dimitri’s with thanks and regrets – thanks for the great food, regrets for the Greek player who gets his second yellow, and sends his team down to ten men before halftime.
Angelo will be singing at the Greek festival in two weeks in Portland, so if I don’t catch him at another Greece game, I will see him then.
Lewandowski’s goal was a “textbook header,” according to the erudite English announcer Ian Darke whose match commentary puts American play-by-play in slow motion. He’s subtle, and ironic, and steeped in vocabulary that seems more suited for the Algonquin roundtable. For Darke, a defender doesn’t get out of a jam; he extradites himself from a cul-de-sac. A forward who is offsides when he misses doesn’t shank so much as “spare his blushes.”
On the drive to Bogusha’s Polish Restaurant on Stevens Avenue in Portland, I realize that Greece needs to their change 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 same score as most of their games on the run in, then and now.
By the time I park, though, the tide has turned. Greece has scored an equalizer, and Wojciech Szczesny, the Polish goalie who plays club ball for Arsenal, has received a red card and is sent off. The numbers now are balanced. Greece may even gain an advantage, but the ensuing penalty kick is saved by the substitute goalie, and the drama unwinds into a draw.
The second half food consists of potato pancake and bigos, or hunter’s stew, which is sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, kielbasa, and tomato.
Bogusha Pawlaczyk, the owner, moved to Portland twenty-five years ago from Greece, ironically, where she lived for a year. She was born in Walcz, Poland.
Marek Kwasnik, who was also at Bogusha’s, enjoying the game, 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 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 Russia and Czech food, no easy task in Milquetoast Maine. In Westbrook, I met Luba Gorelov, from Kazakhstan, formerly of Russia.
Derrick Roe and Kasey Keller announce the game. Roe offers the English accent; Keller offers the only thing Americans offer to the game: good goalies. Gorelov moved to Westbrook fifteen 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 group of death open play with the Netherlands against Denmark. Adrian Healey and Robbie Mustoe announce the game. I’m watching from home, enjoying some Danish pastry with my younger son, Owen. Denmark scores against the run of play, as midfield master Michael Krohn-Dehli scores to give the Danes the surprise lead. The Netherlands had possessed the ball for 85 percent of the game up to 24th minute.
The Dutch, runners-up to Spain at the last World Cup, bring on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael Van Der Vaart in the 70th minute., but to no avail. 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. The bar side is crowded, so we grab two seats by the James Joyce painting. The TV there had no sound, though. Just like the World Cup, RiRa’s talks a good game but doesn’t deliver come opening whistle. Two years ago, soccer fans were moved at halftime of a big game. Granted, a business has to cater to private functions as well, but perhaps Rira’s shouldn’t market itself as the place to watch soccer tournaments if they are ill-prepared for a big turnout. Like a fancy winger, they are all flash and no service.
We grabbed a halftime cab for G and R DiMillo’s, always a guarantee to have the game on – with sound.
Day Three 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 are 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. Soccer line-ups start from the defensive backline, omitting the presumed goalie, and give you three lines of numbers which add up to ten field players, like 4-4-2. Spain is playing a 4-6. Six midfielders! Alonso, Fabregas, Iniesta, Silva, Xavi, and Busquets. No strikers, but with Spain that means midfielder could to forward.
Mario Balotelli, bad boy striker for Italy is playing a subdued self. He’s actually hustling after the ball in defence, playing decoy on a free kick to midfield magician Andre Pirlo, whose is aging but still a much better free-kick specialist. Balotelli gets a yellow card in 37th minute. Italy scores first, but Spain seems to decide to equalize, and then does so.
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. The third Croatia goal, off the post and off Given’s head, redefines the luck of the Irish and makes the offside goal not worth lamenting.
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 tomorrow, the start of third-round play when games become more tense than ever.
In Group A, the Czech Republic and Greece go through; Russia, which started so strongly, and Poland, one co-host, are out.
I watch the 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. Greece scores in injury time to end first half, and despite Russia’s firepower and dominance of all offensive stats save the one that counts, Greece goes through and Russian players are left to deal with an angry fan base. They had fought with Polish fans in pubs after their 1-1 draw, and now both brawling sides were out, looking for punching bags. Russia were tied with Greece on four points but went through on the first tie-breaker: head to head.
In Group B, Germany and Portugal through; the Netherlands and Denmark out. The Dutch went 0-3, and their coach resigned shortly after their exit.
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.
Italy goes up 1-0 on a Antonio Cassano header, and Italy now goes top of the group. Can Spain see their way back to the top by taking Croatia and their tear-gassing fans?
Winning the group means playing a runner-up next round, in the tight world of European soccer, Spain finishing second is a shock, and a good bounce for a team like England who probably will finish second behind France and would prefer Italy to win the group than face Spain next. There is a genius outside-the-right-foot pass from Luka Modric to create a left-footed inswinger, headed at Spain’s goalie Iker Casillas and saved but almost put in from the ground on a follow-up header. Croatia look more likely to score. Could they squeeze Spain out? Spain, for all their skill, do not want to get in the offensive box to challenge for a header and are happy to steal the second ball. However, as Jim Rome once said of Duke men’s basketball, Duke is Duke. And in soccer, Spain is Spain. So they score in the 88th minute to ensure Croatia’s exit. Keith Andrews from Ireland sees his second yellow card, and so red, and completes the Irish disgrace. Not only did they, like the Netherlands, lose all three group games, they also managed to implode. And to seal the ignominy, Balotelli scores a sidewinding bicycle kick with John O’Shea tugging him down by the shirt. The high-profile badboy player has been the victim of racial chants, and he seemed to savor the silencing he gives any critics.
In Group D play, Wayne Rooney returns from suspension and scores on a gift-wrapped header to help England defeat the Ukraine; Ibrahimovich sidewinds a beautiful bike against France and, Sweden’s first win relegates the French to second place and a knockout match against Spain. England win the group and face Italy next.
In the knockout games, Portugal defeats the Czech Republic, 1-0, on a header by Cristiano Ronaldo, who shows himself as the class of Europe.
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 handle France, 2-0, and England lose 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 was 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 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.