September 3rd, 2003 12:00 am Audrey Van Buskirk | Food Reviews & Stories

Italian Time

You could while away the hours consorting at Caffe Allora.

WITH KEEN ATTENTION TO THE MIX: Caffe Allora owner Paolo Parrilli.
"The only classical and true way to eat pasta is with gusto," James Beard once said. You'll have ample opportunity to do just that at Caffe Allora, the six-month-old hybrid of a coffeehouse, wine bar and restaurant located off the now thoroughly beaten path through the Pearl.

The location's advantage--just west of the North Park Blocks--makes parking easy, while the few tables on the sidewalk are relatively quiet and the air is exhaust-free. Generally, eating on the sidewalk is about as appealing as picnicking in a parking lot, but on a quiet street it's tolerable, especially when a crisp glass of wine arrives promptly.

Not much else is likely to arrive promptly, though. There's a cavalier attitude to structure here: Sit where you want. Order from whomever. You can glance over the small menu, but the bulk of the main dishes are listed on a chalkboard. And the kitchen is sometimes out of things--or even not serving food at all if the cook hasn't arrived yet.

Put another way, Allora can be SLOW. But apologetically slow, endearingly slow, if you're not in a hurry. If you can be swayed into forgiveness with a sweetly romantic smile, you'll be pleased with the service at Allora, where the staff makes you feel like Gina Lollobrigida on a very mellow day.

Flattering waiters aside, the food will keep you coming back. Allora's standard menu features an array of salads that sound deceptively simple but are composed with keen attention to color, texture and taste. Everyday celery, the fourth violinist of the food world, gets star billing in several green concoctions, including the excellent, eponymous salad of greens, fennel, celery, red onion and walnuts. A special salad of shrimp, grapefruit, cantaloupe and radicchio is as brilliantly composed as a photograph of a Caribbean sunset printed in a travel brochure, and like all the salads here, it's dressed simply in olive oil. Another night's special salad was made of celery, mushrooms and parmesan bound by more of that olive oil that's so delicious and smooth you want to take a bath in it.

Like celery, ham is an ingredient that people don't usually salivate over. Here, the lowly pig gets plenty of play, showing up in the speck bruschette with goat cheese or the speck panini with fontina cheese (both Northern Italian dishes with evident Austrian influences).

In addition to salads, bruschette and panini, the standard menu includes a variety of small cold plates (piatti freddi if you're a literalist). Antipasto is one of my favorite things to eat--and this version offers a generous variety of meats and cheeses.

The specials board usually offers two to four noodle dishes, and that list often includes gnocchi, served in a decadent four-cream sauce and a ravioli or two (rich porcini-ricotta ravioli, that is, swimming in a drinkable pool of sage-infused butter and oil). Ham is also a frequent ingredient in the special pastas, such as a recent ham-and-zucchini fettuccini dish with yellowy egg noodles dotted with small chunks of salty meat and fresh, summery squash. Another night, the long noodles could be topped with a thick meat sauce or a creamy light tomato sauce with more lovely zucchini.

Beyond the food, the decor is sleek and modern, the walls hung with bold painted blotches of tangerine, robin's-egg blue and aquamarine. The main seating area is composed of a few tables up front, with additional seating in an upstairs loft. Since a coffee bar fills the entire back of the space, you know the coffee service (the Torrefazione brand, what else?) is taken very seriously.

That might serve to entice you to stop by for five minutes to grab a cappuccino on the way to work. Or you could sit here for five hours, working on your dissertation while lingering over an extravagant meal topped off with a dessert to die for.

About dessert: Try the creamy chocolate mousse or a scoop of vanilla gelato doused in the best shot of espresso you're likely to taste in a while. But if any dessert is really worth dying for, Allora's tiramisu would make the list. If you're sick of this now-ubiquitous mocha pudding, this incredibly delicious rendition will remind you why you jumped on the bandwagon. The bad news is, if the cook is too tired to make tiramisu one morning, they'll be out of it for a while. The good news is, you'll have an excuse to come back.

Caffe Allora
509 NW 9th Ave., 445-4612.
7 am-10 pm Monday-Saturday.
Most credit cards accepted, but no American Express or checks.
$ Inexpensive.

Owner Paolo Parrilli came to Portland for a woman--now his wife--and spent over a decade working at Torrefazione Italia.

Don't forget the wine: There's an extensive list of mainly Italian wines.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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