It's surprisingly easy to guess which guys are headed through the mirrored door to the adult theater. Grandfatherly gentleman in a plaid shirt scurrying down the sidewalk like he's late for a dentist appointment? Yup. Giant cowboy hat? Oh yeah. Handlebar mustache and tiny track shorts? Hmm, maybe.
People-watching is a pleasant diversion at Cibo, the new Division Street Italian joint from Bastas chef-owner Marco Frattaroli. Frattaroli must have known that when he installed giant picture windows facing the Oregon Theater, along with vintage desk lamps, bar stools made from the ribs of old wine barrels and a tin-tiled bar. It's a plentiful source of delight at a restaurant that offers as many puzzled squints and frustrated furrows.
Why are we cutting our pizza with plastic-handled kitchen shears? Did we order an octopus salad? How did this fish benefit from being baked under a pile of salt? Why is everything on the menu that's not round—focaccia, steak, salad and fish, priced between $2 and $19—grouped together as "Etcetera"? And, wait, where is that guy in a red sweatshirt and jean shorts going?
First, what Cibo does well: round things. Cecinas—chickpea flour pancakes baked in an imported oven—are the reason to come. Otherwise unknown in Portland, these falafel-crepe hybrids come plain ($8) or with pesto ($10), eggplant ($10) or sausage ($12). The plain cecina, topped with a grind of black pepper and slightly charred, was my favorite. It's a simple and filling appetizer loaded with protein and fiber.
The pizza isn't worth waiting for, but it is solidly above average; like at Nostrana it's built on a crust thin enough to slice with scissors and kissed with smoke. Our sopressata ($12) was light on cheese but had a full sandwich worth of salami along with shavings of red onion and a few olives. I couldn't promise your pizza would look the same given young Cibo's inconsistency.
The Etcetera section of the menu is a minefield. Only the malfatti al ragu ($12), simple square pasta with a beefy tomato sauce, was up to the standard of the pizza and cecinas. The focaccia ($2) was a little soggy. The octopus ($9), which was advertised as coming with "blanched potatoes and arugula," is actually a large plate of arugula with several chewy, browned tentacles and a few small chunks of potato. Arancini ($6), two plum-sized fried balls of rice and mozzarella, begged for tomato sauce.
The salt-baked fish ($19) is a big miss. The dish is a fryer-size pompano covered in salt crystals and baked whole in the restaurant's oven, then wheeled out to the table on a cart. Our server was impressed with the fish as he scraped away the salt and skin: "Oh, this one looks good," he said. "They've been burning some of them." The show yielded two small fillets that, doused in a grassy olive oil, tasted exactly like fish baked in tin foil.
That fish dish belongs back in the pond. Cibo would be wise to toss it before facing competition from the Woodsman Tavern and Stumptown owner Duane Sorenson's upcoming Italian restaurant, which will sit two blocks away. Then again, it'll be hard to beat Cibo during trenchcoat season.
- Order this: Plain cecina ($8).
- Best deal: Sopressata pizza ($12).
- Iâll pass: Salt-baked fish ($19).
EAT: Cibo, 3539 SE Division St., 719-5377, facebook.com/cibopdx. $$ Moderate.