If you've noted the handful of Italian restaurants that have opened recently, you might think the carbcutting trend had finally died. Two cozy eastside spots--Italian Joint on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and Sal's Famous Italian Kitchen on Killingsworth Street--have already become neighborhood draws, and their popularity might suggest that basic Italian noodles are Portland's new pad Thai.
The Italian Joint doesn't seem to be suffering from either carb-phobia or from that phenomenally dull name. On several visits, it was perfectly crowded--just one empty table for my party. The walls of the dining room are painted a vivid Tuscan orange and the ceiling a silvery gray, all of this a backdrop for the kind of friendly place where you might start up a conversation with a neighboring table. You won't have many neighbors, actually, as the restaurant houses just eight tables inside and a couple more on an outside patio, which (oddly) adjoins the front lawn of the house next door.
The best thing about the Joint is that the food is really, really cheap. It's possible to eat a full meal for $7 and not feel like you're scrimping.
The straightforward menu won't blow your mind but the food might comfort your soul. The Caesar salad ($5-$8) boasts plenty of garlic (and anchovies on request), and the antipasti plate is a typical but tasty mix ($7), or try the more unusual plate of deep-fried ravioli ($5) with a thick tomato dipping sauce.
The spicy angel-hair pasta, with or without Italian sausage ($7-$9), is a great choice for an entrée as the noodle filaments hold up surprisingly well against the hot sauce, sparked with garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, olives and red chili flakes. The spaghetti ($6-$8) tastes like something you could make at home, but with prices this cheap, why bother?
Beyond pasta, there's a zesty, lemony chicken piccata ($12) studded with garlic and capers, served in a giant portion. The chicken parmesan ($12) is heavier, with a crust that is too bready. Surprisingly, the only dessert choice offered is spumoni ice cream ($1.50), but you probably won't be hungry for much else.
Across town and well north, Sal's Famous Italian Kitchen styles itself--with walls decorated with Italian-themed posters and vintage celebrity pictures--as a casual gathering spot. The glass-walled restaurant may well be a step toward transforming Killingsworth into another neighborhood restaurant row, but for now Sal's and its next-door neighbor, the just-opened Mio Sushi, are the main dining outposts.
Sal's concept of focusing on a wide variety of pastas and pizzas seems to be working, if crowds are an indication. The basic thin-crust pizza ($6.75) is simply delicious on its own, with a chewy crust, gooey mozzarella, salty pecorino and fresh tomato sauce, or you can make a meal out of the generous antipasti platter ($8.75-$13.50). There's also a lengthy wine list and an inventive selection of Bellinis and other cocktails.
Pasta dishes range from creamy fettuccine carbonara ($7 lunch, $9.50 dinner) to spaghetti with terrific, baseball-sized meatballs ($7 lunch, $8.75 dinner). The wild-mushroom ravioli ($9.25) gets tossed in a just-right tomato cream sauce, while the golden risotto Milanese ($9), flavored with saffron, tastes too chalky.
Who knows if there really is a Sal's mama's grandma's second cousin named Nino--that's who the meatloaf ($9.25) is named after--but the meaty, tender flavor and crisp crust might make anyone willing to attend a family supper, no matter how strange the relatives.
Sal's portion of veal parmigiano ($15) is more food than should be legal to eat in one sitting. The pounded-thin meat, coated in bread crumbs and baked with marinara sauce and provolone, rests on a fountain of fettuccine and a clump of wonderfully garlicky sautéed spinach.
Despite a few flaws, both the Joint and Sal's are places you'll want to go back to. If you don't live nearby, don't worry. If the trend continues, a cheap Italian spot will certainly be appearing on your block soon.
3145 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 234-3004.Dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays. Credit cards. $ Cheap.
Sal's Famous Italian Kitchen 2731 N Killingsworth St., 247-0500.Lunch and dinner daily. Credit cards. $ Cheap.The Italian Joint delivers happy-hour specials from 4-6 pm and 10 pm to midnight, with a smaller menu offering meals priced at $4 or less.
Sal's is the latest endeavor of the Pizzicato group.