Perhaps you’re smarter than I am, and therefore can decipher what “alla spina” and “a bottiglia” mean. But you’ll probably be confused by something on Ava Gene’s deliberately opaque menu, which local Yelp boss Don Bourassa called “difficult, to the point of being a little scary” in a five-star review that begins with a definition of the word “transcendent.”
If Stumptown helped banish unnecessary Italian words from coffee—remember the awful moment when non-Starbucks shops sold venti-size cups—Ava Gene’s maccheroni and sagna riccia (macaroni and lasagna noodles) bring things full circle.
That’s not a bad thing, exactly. Sorenson’s first restaurant, the Woodsman Tavern, felt immediately familiar. Ava Gene’s pushes things—our first visit ended with six courses and not one tomato—but brings a little surprise to comforting fare that was demystified generations ago. If you navigate the menu right, you’ll have a magnifico meal.
...away from the door. Ava Gene’s is busy, even on weeknights. On one visit, we were seated at the table nearest the big, clumsy doors on a frigid day. I kept my jacket and still dreaded every entrance and exit. Next, we sat at the chef’s counter, watching the cooks work the Ox-aping, hand-cranked wood-fired oven while basking in its warmth.
THE MEAT AND CHEESE PLATES...
…are meat and cheese plates. The $14 affettati piccolo salumi sampler is enough for two to share, and has buttery country ham along with a few spicy sausages.
...is not complimentary. Instead, order from a list of six “pane,” ($6-$9) bruschetta-style slices of grilled toast loaded down with a pile of chicken liver, spreadable sausage or soft-boiled egg with cured tuna roe. I found the pastelike spreadable sausage, called Nduja ($7), to have little flavor beyond a musty smokiness. A slice with plump borlotti beans and fragrant rosemary ($7) was a favorite.
THE GIARDINI AND PIATTI...
...are the headings for appetizers and
salads, some cooked, some raw, distinguished by something I don’t
understand. Simple fire-roasted Brussels sprouts with a squeeze of lemon
and an absurdly delicious dipping sauce of tuna and mayonnaise ($10)
are a must, as is the Tuscan
Cavalry salad ($10). The salad is made with crisp, thinly sliced kale,
slightly smashed so it can be softened by
acidic dressing (it's actually the oil, see here for a scientific explanation –ed) then topped
with bread crumbs and umami-intense grated Parmesan. Avoid the overly
bitter roasted radicchio ($7).
…is the highlight. Plan to order one “primi” course for everyone and share the “secondi.” I’d recommend macaroni in zesty white cauliflower sauce ($14), which was cooked to an ideal al dente and topped with a sprinkle of salty cheese. Ravioli in beef and tomato sauce is elegantly simple, and the orecchiette with pork sausage features a doughy rustic pasta with crumbles of herbed sausage and grilled onions in a rich, buttery sauce.
THE MAIN COURSES...
...are large hunks of meat, best shared. Ava’s entrees seem like Woodsman B-sides. Leg of lamb is grilled medium-rare then sliced, sprinkled with mint and served over soupy lentils ($28). Half our massive braised pork osso bucco ($24) was too dry, while the other was wonderfully juicy. The pork’s jamlike “mostarda” has almost no mustard kick.
...are filler. You won’t leave hungry after a big bowl of Calais flint polenta ($6), essentially savory grits.
...include a massive bowl of airy ice cream branded as gelato ($6, get coconut) and a plate of crunchy coffee cookies ($6) that goes well with coffee. Yes, there’s coffee—no Italian required.
EAT: Ava Gene’s, 3377 SE Division St., 971-229-0571, avagenes.com. 5-11 pm daily. $$$.