Giorgio's isn't a restaurant people are talking about, but it's a place you should know if you're serious about food.

Owner Giorgio Kawas' restaurant, located in the hip-happening Pearl District, hit the national radar late last year when Gourmet editors named it a Portland favorite. Locally, though, the restaurant seems to generate buzz as hushed as its low-key entrance and its understated, elegant dishes.

Chef Michael T. Clancy's menu changes weekly, to draw upon seasonal ingredients, and his dishes--Northern Italian with the accent of French cooking techniques--demonstrate a well-developed imagination for which flavors will play well with others.

The interior of the below-ground-floor space looks like a French bistro, with a tile floor and a long banquette snaking around buttery yellow walls. The tables are placed close together, but what's lost in privacy is gained in being able to observe what other diners are eating. Giorgio's feels like a special-occasion place--and it's priced like one, as dinner for two will set you back at least $100 with a couple of glasses of wine or a cocktail.

The food is consistently interesting, starting off with a recent special appetizer that perfectly matched a sultry summer evening--a chilled fennel soup topped with shavings of fennel bulb and a dusting of what was described as fennel pollen. A mound of white-and-pink crabmeat lay in the center of the icy green soup, the entire dish looking as lovely as it tasted.

Crab also turns up in a wonderful salad ($14), marinated for a slightly sour taste, then mounded over a juicy tomato slice with a scallion compote and corn emulsion. The combination of sweet and sour offered an explosion of flavor that tasted so good I wanted to order more.

A starter with more Italian flavor is the individual lasagna filled with local morels, asparagus and Grana cheese ($12). You might not think of lasagna as a light dish, but this version tastes like one, with thin sheets of fresh pasta wrapped around the salty cheese, chewy mushrooms and tender asparagus stalks. There's a substantial warm white-bean salad ($10), made of perfectly cooked beans studded with chunks of goat cheese and drizzled with white truffle oil, and the combination winds up smelling like a wonderful body lotion.

For entrees, there's a rotating assortment of pastas (all described on the menu as homemade, which seems redundant), and vegetarians should try the young-carrot ravioli with olives ($18). But the standout selection is the gnocchi ($23), those little potato dumplings that so often catch in your throat like glue-covered horse vitamins. Clancy's are flavored with chives and topped with spot prawns, snap peas and black truffle oil, and they taste rich as butter.

Worth celebrating is the appearance of local chanterelles on the menu, recently combined with a terrific pan-roasted red snapper ($26). The simple fish lies surrounded by a pool of corn kernels, tiny cubes of crispy potatoes and those earthy mushrooms. Another excellent fish dish involves a generous square of Alaskan halibut over a tender pepper stew ($27), scattered with bits of crispy guanciale (that's cured pork jowl--are you glad you asked?). Then there's the best lamb I've ever tasted--pretty ovals of the loin with rosy pink insides--on top of romano beans and fresh, fresh asparagus ($28), topped off with the addition of a minty-tasting herb sauce of summer savory, instead of the standard sticky green jelly.

Service can be uneven, as on one visit the servers seemed flustered by the full room--being allowed to slowly savor our food is one thing, but waiting on empty plates to be cleared is another. On another visit, when the restaurant was less crowded, the service was pleasantly attentive.

The spark generated by interesting combinations extends to the dessert menu (all $8), which includes basil panna cotta or fennel seed mixed into the crème brûlée. If you prefer simple desserts, don't miss the housemade (of course) ice cream, as the simple vanilla and caramel deserve raves. Molten chocolate cake is this decade's tiramisu, but Giorgio's offers a fine version with a firm crust and a not-too-liquid middle.

As the season turns, and summer corn, young turnips and spring onions are rotated off the menu, I'm eagerly anticipating what Clancy makes of fall harvest produce. It should be well worth talking about.


1131 NW Hoyt St., 221-1888.11:30 am-2 pm Tuesday-Friday; 5-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday. Credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended. $$$ Expensive.

Owner Giorgio Kawas was raised in Ferrara, Italy, and holds an MBA in restaurant management from Boston University. Chef Michael Clancy, who trained in France, has worked in New York and California kitchens. In addition, Clancy played first violin in the New Jersey Symphony.