An Italian Kitchen in Portland
Some friends from Mantova,Italy visited last week. They've been traveling here almost once a year for 12 years. In that time, they've noticed quite a change in the quality of restaurants. Back in 1995, we had trouble finding places where the food wasn't embarrassing.
For those of you who do not know, Italians can be very fussy about their food. The bread, the wine, the temperature of the food, whether or not things are cooked to just the right degree of "done-ness", how dishes are balanced on a menu, all these things play a role in their satisfaction. Both these friends have wives who are great Italian home cooks, and have mothers who can cook anyone under a table. I've seen these guy take on some amazing fish dishes as well.
We started at Ken's Artisan Pizza, which they approved of so much they asked to return a few nights later. The dough was just right. The topping was a little dry on the margherita, but flavorful. The place was "simpatico." And although the wine list wasn't great, the beer hit the spot.
We then went to Nostrana's. Also "molto simpatico" in terms of the spazio (space). (I have to say I've just about given up on the place. The first time, a soup dish that was ordered never arrived. The second time, we called to reserve a table for six and were told "We already have three." We asked what that meant and were told "no." A half hour later I called again and this time was given the reservation right away. But when we arrived there was no reservation. I have to give fault to the owners. They have known all year that service is a huge problem and have not fixed it.) They praised the house-made bread, the high quality and flavor of the olive oil, and the succulent meats they ordered.
Tuscany Grill was our spot on another night. That restaurant has always been uneven in my estimatation. Who puts balsamic vinegar on milky mozzarella? And why drown the ravioli in cream sauce? And can't the pasta be really al dente and not a dash too pasty? However, the Italians really liked the pork with figs (which appeals to my penchant for meat with fruit, particularly chicken with pomegranate, apricots, lemons or prunes). Mantova and nearby Vicenza use quite a bit of mostarda, a locally made chutney-like dressing, on meats.
Now they're talking about spending more time in Portland on their next trip, getting a suite hotel so they can shop at the markets and cook up some meals with the great ingredients we have. I'll be happy to be a dinner guest.
So, count your blessings, Portland. There are few places in the USA that can boast any affinity with an Italian kitchen. We are getting there.