Portland is becoming awfully hip and sophisticated. This is a good thing when you need an iced decaf double latte pronto, or when you want to see the Iranian film that won the 1997 Palme d'Or at Cannes. But hipness has a price.
Italian food in this city has suffered under the yoke of our sophistication, as manifest in menus dominated by goat cheese, tapenades, whole salt-cured anchovies and a cornucopia of bean varieties. These fancy foods, served in rustic, intimate, Architectural Digest surroundings, have all but choked out the few old-fashioned, East Coast-style places. The last and best of the old-school Italian is Alessandro's.
Entrenched within the vast cement fortress of Smart Park at Southeast Morrison Street and 3rd Avenue, the restaurant offers unpretentious pasta and meat selections in a cozy red-and-green dining room. Posters from ancient Portland Opera productions adorn its walls; plastic grape vines cascade from its ceiling; and a mural above the kitchen depicts a woman earnestly stomping on grapes in I Love Lucy fashion. Alessandro's looks the way Italian restaurants used to back before the '90s. Back when Henry's was the only local beer most folks drank. Back when timber was our only industry. Back when Portland kinda sucked, and the culinary scene in America kinda sucked. But don't be discouraged by these associations: Alessandro's food is remarkable, just as it probably was back then.
In old-school Italian food, pasta is the main assignment; everything else is extra credit. Alessandro's penne Gorgonzola ($12.95) ranks among the best pasta dishes I've ever eaten. A velvety blend of salty, pungent Gorgonzola and sweet cream envelop crunchy walnuts, al dente penne, and juicy morsels of smoky pancetta. How can mere words capture the pleasure of eating this dish? First, think of the ecstatic rush you get when you bite into a big, gooey spoonful of Häagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream. Now consider the sweet bliss of realizing that this miserable morning you thought was Monday, when you are scheduled to present a shoddy report to your boss and sharklike colleagues, is actually a Saturday. The penne Gorgonzola is even better than all that.
In keeping with the traditions of old, Alessandro's serves pasta sides with its meat entrees, thereby saving its customers from an agonizing choice at dinner--although possibly leading them to agonize over calories later. My favorite carnivorous option is the chicken saltimbocca ($14.50). Thin chicken breast cutlets are pounded to make them more tender, dredged in a little flour, sautéed in butter, and topped with crispy sage and prosciutto. This is offered with tortellini alla panna, another top-performing pasta dish, featuring sweet, fresh-tasting tortellini in a luxurious Parmesan cream sauce redolent of nutmeg, oregano and garlic.
Considering how rich and delicious and massive the main courses tend to be, you definitely do not need an appetizer. But it's hard to resist the incredible calamari fritti ($6.95), those succulent, lightly crisped miniature squid that dissolve ever so gracefully in your mouth. Ask for some of Alessandro's garlicky marinara for dipping these critter fritters.
Soup or salad is complimentary with any meat entree, but both the house and the Caesar salad tend to be a little dreary; soups are better, especially the tortellini in brodo with soothing chicken stock. It won't make you want to savor the moment for all eternity, but it's tasty. A good plan is to exercise restraint with the appetizer to leave room for a hefty serving of main course, and possibly dessert if you swing that way.
Some may believe that traditional Italian desserts excel, but in reality many are underachievers. For instance, many versions of tiramisu look and taste like a stale cake somebody dropped in a puddle of coffee, stepped on, and then smothered with Cool Whip to conceal the crime. Alessandro's tiramisu, by contrast, features two intact layers of firm, moist cake separated by an obscenely rich and delicious mascarpone cream. This dish, like most on the menu, triumphs through the simplicity of its preparation and the integrity of its ingredients.
I know it's scary in the big, ugly Smart Park, and all your culinary instincts warn against going inside a restaurant that reminds you of childhood trips to Izzy's Pizza--but Alessandro's wonderful food and warm, polished service will dispel all your fears. Don't be tragically hip; give the place a chance. Besides, just think how easy it's going to be to park....
301 SW Morrison St., 222-3900
Open 11:30 am- 10 pm Monday- Thursday, 11:30 am-11 pm Friday, noon-3 pm and 5-11 pm Saturday.
Picks: Calamari fritti, penne Gorgonzola, tortellini alla panna, chicken saltimbocca