Richard Hanson, the James Beard Award-nominated chef who for more than a decade ran Cleonice Mediterranean Bistro in downtown Ellsworth with his wife, Cary, passed away Tuesday in Florida, where the couple lived for the past year. He was 61.
When Cleonice opened in the summer of 2002, the BDN reported that Hanson named the restaurant after his late mother, Cleonice Renzetti, a first-generation Italian who shared her love of cooking and experimenting with international cuisine with her son. Known for its adventurous, bold take on a kind of pan-Mediterranean fusing of Italian, French, Spanish, Greek and Turkish cuisines, Cleonice was likely the first restaurant in the Ellsworth area to serve octopus, a signature dish of Hanson’s. Back in 2002, however, “local” was not a buzzword, and foodie culture hadn’t quite reached eastern Maine — but Chef Hanson, a native of upstate New York who prior to opening Cleonice was chef at Jonathan’s in Blue Hill, was ahead of the curve. His food attracted attention well beyond eastern Maine; he was a semi-finalist for Best Chef Northeast for the James Beard Awards in 2008 and 2009.
Over the years, the eatery attracted a devoted following, not just for its excellent food, but for its convivial atmosphere, lively bar and regular specialty wine dinners, showcasing everything from wild game and hyper-local foods, to a replication of the grandiose repast served in the film “Big Night,” to, in 2014, a “Game of Thrones”-themed dinner.
Chris Luck, a longtime patron of the restaurant, said during the 2012 “Big Night” dinner that Rich and Cary had re-created much of the warm, loving feeling reflected in the film.
“I think [the movie is] a wonderful expression of love between these brothers, who are trying to educate the populace as to what real Italian cuisine is,” said Luck. “I think a lot of what Rich and Cary have done in Ellsworth is the same thing. They came into a town that had nothing like Cleonice. It was pretty daring. I think there’s a direct comparison to be made about their trying to expand the palates of Down East, and the brothers in ‘Big Night’ doing the same with New Jersey. That’s why it’s so special.”
In 2009, the Hansons opened Table in Blue Hill, a more casual Italian-inspired eatery that was open for two years. In 2012, Cleonice moved from its longtime location at 112 Main St. up the street in Ellsworth to 192 Main St., the Maine Grind building, where it merged with The Maine Grind, a popular local coffeeshop. Despite the restaurant’s devoted local following, Cleonice only lasted about two years at its second location, and in December 2014 closed its doors. The Hansons said in a BDN article that the regional economy had been “unrelenting” and that they didn’t think they could make it through another winter.
In 2015, the Hansons worked with Roxanne Quimby to open The Raven’s Nest in Winter Harbor, a farm-to-table eatery with an Italian flair; the pair only cooked in the restaurant for one summer, before relocating to Florida. Rich Hanson had been experiencing heart troubles for some time before his passing this week. Cary Hanson had maintained a Bangor Daily News blog showcasing many of the recipes she and her husband served in their restaurant; the blog archive is still online at cleonice.bangordailynews.com.