Alberta Street was pegged as Portland's next "it" neighborhood in the late '90s, and the intervening years have brought the street booms in construction, home sales, art galleries and commerce (not to mention overuse of the word "gentrification"). Though enough time has passed for newer businesses to gain a certain gravitas, sometimes the street still has that slapped-up-overnight feel.
But chef/owner Vito DiLullo (formerly of Caffe Mingo, Bluehour and Higgins) may have accomplished the impossible with Ciao Vito: a warm, authentic fine-dining restaurant in a gritty neighborhood poised to snarl at the very notion. With its urbane but unpretentious decor, Italian-casual menu and suave cocktails, the joint seems as comfortable as if it had been there for years. And the neighborhood, far from filing a protest, seems to be filing in the door.
The menu is a single typewritten sheet loosely divided into first courses, basic bistro plates like burgers ($8.50) and spaghetti ($10), and more elaborate entrees ($15-$17). There's a nightly antipasti della casa ($8), but if your expectations run to ripple-cut bottled carrots and slices of provolone, DiLullo aims higher. House-made pickles of zucchini and cucumber, cured olives, peppery marbled salamis, several varieties of hard cheese, roasted peppers--easily 10 or 12 unique items--arrive fanned out in a feast, with slices of crusty bread on which to gluttonously pile them.
The fried calamari ($8) is simple but flawless, the batter crispy and whisper-thin, the lemony aioli just tart enough to make you forget you're eating fried food. The Caesar salad, a recent special, was made the oldfashioned way, with an on-the-spot hand-built dressing of Worcestershire, garlic, lemon and anchovy. (OK, it was sans raw egg, but, you know, safety first.)
For a simple--though not exactly light--supper, the Italian burger is a steal at $8.50. A ground beef patty, served on brioche, is heaped with slices of thick-cut pancetta and fontina, with all the usual all-American lettuce, tomato et al. arrayed on the plate around it. You may not eat again for days--and that may be a good thing.
To tread more lightly, diners can chose from several seafood and pasta entrees, such as a familiar and serviceable spaghetti marinara ($10) to a spectacular roasted halibut with salsa verde and vegetables ($17). The fish, tinted golden from its brush with the broiler, is poised atop a fresh-cut sauce of tomatoes, greens and herbs sautéed just long enough to release their flavor. The whole dish is impressively light-handed, which, after the burger, shows versatility and skill in the kitchen.
Versatility seems just the thing to please the restaurant's diverse crowd. At one table you'll see four older women daintily sipping lemon drops, at another, a gay couple in black turtlenecks studiously tucking into their pork chops, while at the next-door table there's a silver-haired party whose to-the-manner-born ease would be right at home at any white-tablecloth ristorante in town.
And that may be Ciao Vito's greatest coup. All restaurants claim that "anyone is welcome," but that appears to ring true here. A staff that mostly hails from the neighborhood gives the place its local edge, while Vito DiLullo himself, an electric presence in the restaurant, periodically paces around to make sure diners are happy. If you have to wait for a table (a not-uncommon phenomenon), you'll be cordially ushered into the bar for a sip of the house-made limoncello (cloudy, bilious-yellow, and not to be missed, $5).
The star of the house cocktail menu is the Eleanor Frizzante ($6.50), an unlikely but inspired blend of vanilla vodka, Tuaca, grapefruit and lime juices, and Prosecco. The splash of bubbly gives the drink its elegance, while the clash of Tuaca's sweetness and the citrus fruit's tang create full-bodied, earthy contrast. What seems like contradiction instead produces harmony--the drink is a fitting toast for the sweetheart deal Ciao Vito has struck with the offbeat neighborhood it calls home.
2203 NE Alberta St., 282-5522Happy hour 4-6 pm; dinner 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$ Moderate.