But Grassa also follows the blueprint of that success, which was first mapped out by Tommy Habetz at Bunk Sandwiches: Highly pedigreed chef makes creative, meticulously crafted lowbrow food for the masses, with foodie-ready embellishments like kimchee, roasted fennel and caper mayo.
Grassa’s pasta dishes likewise eschew familiar marinara and Alfredo in favor of more itinerant (but still accessible) concoctions: chitarra with squid ink, baby octopus and preserved lemon; strozzapreti with white anchovy; bucatini carbonara with pork belly. The menu looks fun, up there on the chalkboard.
And Grassa is built for speed. Or, more to the point, it’s built for maximum churn, from the huddle of would-be diners dodging the outdoor service staff at the restaurant’s cramped entranceway ordering station to its long, packed-in communal tables and bussing so aggressive it seems competitive. The back of the house is well-staffed and terrifically busy: making, bagging, tagging and boiling pasta in up to 10 different shapes while lunch or dinner service continues. Grassa is a truly impressive machine, the digestive tract of an earthworm that spits you out on the other side in under 45 minutes, a little confused.
This efficiency keeps costs low, however, and all is forgiven if the food is wonderful. It isn’t always—though there are standouts, such as the aforementioned chitarra ($12), a firm pasta with the earthy tang of squid ink and beautifully charred and spiced octopus. The excellent carbonara ($10) and a gigli noodle casserole ($10) combining sweet coppa, breadcrumbs, tomato and corn are can’t-miss affairs of salt and fat, a better-sourced take on the comforting stuff of New Jersey potlucks.
But the spaghetti aglio olio ($7) neglected both the aglio (garlic) and the advertised chili; it was a bland, oily, dorm-ready bowl of noodles covered in grana. The anchovies on the strozzapreti ($11) are beautifully pungent, and the tomato blended beautifully with smoked olives, but the whole production is fouled into deeply over-acidic territory by a mountain of capers. A tonnarelli dish with fried sand dabs arrived on an unfortunate one-note parsley gremolata; the insubstantial pasta couldn’t ground the high notes in the parsley and lemon, making the bowl tedious. An inconsequential ricotta gnocchi ($10) faded from mouth and memory, in dim spice and oily sheen.
The $10 contorni featured a pleasant pickled beet dish with cream and walnuts ($4 singly), alongside wilting, unspiced mixed veggies that looked and tasted like the hot-plate fare at a supermarket deli, plus a bowl of oil-slicked chickpeas whose very existence was frankly confusing.
The less said about the house wine, the better.
In many regards, Grassa is the apogee of unfortunate trends in Portland dining. Portland crowds are passive and reliable and eager to be pleased—willing to stand in lines for hours for often iffy food (Luc Lac, Salt & Straw), to squeeze in tightly and get back in line for second drinks. But at Grassa, the process almost feels like bullying, the equivalent of a Temple Grandin tunnel meant to beat the patrons into docility (or at least distract them with the Black Keys at 70 decibels).
But upon leaving, on both visits, we didn’t feel docile—just a bit tired, thinking fondly of the casual housemade pappardelle at Piazza Italia, and the wonderful, no-fuss handmade gnocchi at the Artigiano food cart across the river.
- Order this: Try the chitarra or carbonara and some beets. For beer, you may choose between Breakside Pilsner and Breakside Pilsner. (EDIT: Diners can, however, bring a beer to Grassa from next-door Lardo, which has a solid selection of locals and seasonals.)
- Best deal: The carbonara is filling at $10.
- I’ll pass: Avoid the aglio olio, ricotta gnocchi, chickpeas and roasted veg.
EAT: Grassa, 1205 SW Washington St., 241-1133, grassapdx.com. 11 am-10 pm daily. $$.