While walking around at lunchtime this week, I came across an inconspicuous Italian-style bakery/cafe, Sophia's on Market St. in the middle of the Old Port. I seem to recall a radio documentary (from the Salt Inst. for Documentary Studies) about its proprietor, describing his dedication and commitment to getting up early and baking good bread...
Anyway, when you walk into the place you are hit with the "quality" vibe. It's a small cafe with a view of the bakery in back, huge sacks of flour visible, the owner/baker doubling up at the counter during lunch. On the counter are the quickie lunches, like "baker's lunch," long, thin slices of pugliese bread drizzled with green olive oil, sprinkled with cracked pepper, topped with a thin slice of cheese -- Provolone one day, Cambozola another; "fogatz," which is a cross bet. a Sicilian slice and plain focaccia, chewy inch-thick squares topped with a very thin layer of tomato sauce and cheese and baked so the topping becomes more like bread with tomato-y crust than like pizza. Sandwiches: capicola with provolone, tuna with dill and cucumber, feta spread with roasted pepper, all sound ordinary but on fresh miniature ciabattas split and given the olive oil and cracked pepper treatment before being filled. Round stuffed breads with wedges cut out to reveal fillings: ham & provolone; spinach and feta. Soup: squash with chicken broth and rosemary one day, pasta-fagioli another; all ingredients listed on hand-lettered signs. Pastry: homemade amaretti, enormous biscotti, sweet cornmeal cake, cookies, more.
What's really key here is the bread behind the counter, clearly made with love: giant Pugliese loaves sold for 2.50 a quarter or $9 for a whole one (I tried one. The crust not as splintery as some: it probably gets less kneading than the Pugliese at Sullivan St. in Manhattan, but quite satisfying), dark multigrain spelt loaves, oblong whole-wheat and cornmeal sourdough, baguette-style loaves, country boules.
I can't find this place in the online phone book. They don't seem to advertise either. By the door, there's a clipped review from the paper from last July giving it 4 out of 4 stars for food, service, value. Lunch crowd on a soggy day in January was small but steady. I don't know how long it was open before that, but I'd like it to stick around. If you're in Portland, please check it out.