As the anchor of Portland's little Little Italy--a row of restaurants on Northwest 21st Avenue that includes Caffe Mingo and Tuscany Grill--Serratto is by far the most ambitious. But the successor to Delfina's, which once roosted on the same spot, has been open now for several years but never seemed to live up to the hopes many had for Michael Cronan and Stephen Gomez's handsome establishment. The cooking could be wildly uneven and the service unreliable, and one felt more concern had gone into the pretty, rustic Italian appointments and comfortable look of the place than into the food.
Happily, Serratto has in recent months begun to deserve the high expectations it initially kindled, and though the crowds have been kind from the start, their loyalty appears at last to have been rewarded. The kitchen, now headed by co-chefs Adam Berger and Matt Johnson, is turning out some serious and well-executed dishes, and the staff seems sharper, better trained and more experienced.
It's still an attractive space--open, filled with raking light from tall and wide windows, cleanly and unfussily elegant. The menu doesn't change often; some dishes come and go, but aside from the addition of seasonal ingredients, things are pretty much entrenched. The menu's list of stalwarts mirrors the fidelity of the patrons: This is a place for devoted regulars. You'll find a handful of antipasti, a small cluster of pastas, five or six entrees and a few desserts, with no major surprises. The cooking is broadly Italian, but inflected with American tastes so that nothing appears too unfamiliar or challenging. This is not a criticism so much as a description of the restaurant's penchant for assuring a comfortable experience.
If you order right, you can have a stellar meal. However, there are a number of items that don't match up to Serratto's best dishes, and you could be a bit disappointed. The soups ($6) are outstanding: I had a recent roasted-pepper soup that was smoky and deeply pungent. A simple salad of heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil ($9) was superb; this is a treacherous dish, for unless the tomatoes are jammed with flavor and the cheese milky and sweet, it fails. Serratto's was perfect, and the rainbow of green, yellow, red and purple fruit made a stunning display. I was less enchanted by a duck crêpe ($11), which seemed sparsely filled with confit and awfully rich with bechamel sauce, though the crêpe itself was grilled and crisp for a nice change. I liked the flavors of bruschetta laden with briny seafood ($12), but the bread was saturated with the cooking wine and had to be eaten with a fork. Since the traditional Italian meal usually begins with pasta, on one occasion I shared an order of superb spinach ravioli ($18) lightly stuffed with gorgonzola and showered with chanterelles and walnut meat, on another a perfectly cooked orecchiette with chard and fresh tomatoes ($14). Splitting an order this way shouldn't fill you too quickly and launches your meal the way Italians intended.
Serratto's kitchen does its finest work with fish. I enjoyed a plate of halibut ($20) braised with olives, tomatoes, capers and anchovies--in short, a seafood puttanesca, a name deriving from the ladies of pleasure who lured customers as much with their famous sauce as with their other charms. Since Serratto's version is Neapolitan, the halibut seems quite appropriate done this way. And the accompanying al dente spinach leaves lend a pretty touch to this saucy dish. Another winner is the order of scallops ($18), nicely seared and nestled on a bed of cannellini beans and arugula swirled in a bracing seafood and wine broth, finished with unctuous truffle butter--a surprisingly light and immensely pleasurable dish.
For heartier appetites, chunks of grilled pork on a skewer ($18) benefit from an ambrosial fig molasses, which gives the meat a deep mahogany hue; the pork was a tad too dry, though, and I would have preferred a more succulent, meaty pork chop. Roast chicken ($19) is always a test, since it's one of the simplest of treatments and a homey concoction many of us do in our own kitchens. I found the version here reasonably good, but the deboned piece I received was flattened almost to scallopine thinness, and consequently lacked the juiciness you normally expect in a roast bird.
Among the desserts (all $7), the lemon curd crostata is outstanding: With its intense, pucker-up-Babe tartness, it cuts through whatever olive oil you've had earlier. Panna cotta is often a bland thing at best, but Serratto's rendition has a suave, creamy finish and comes alive with an addition of explosive fresh berries. The one disappointment among pastry chef Beth Higginbotham's otherwise solid work is the gelato panini, Italian for ice-cream sandwich. Forget the old soft vanilla between layers of chocolate pastry; this chocolate torte, layered with caramel-vanilla gelato and caramel fudge sauce, is so granite-impenetrable that your dentist may profit from your indiscretion.
There's been a solid, indeed welcome improvement in Serratto's kitchen, and I hope the upswing continues. If so, the old faithful crowds will really have something to shout about, beyond the festive cheer and Mike Cronan's always-genial hosting.
2112 NW Kearney St., 221-1195 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-10:30 pm Friday- Saturday. Credit cards accepted. Kids welcome but seldom seen. Moderate- Expensive.
Picks: Soups, homemade ravioli, most fish dishes, seared scallops, lemon curd
Nice touch: Vineria (casual lounge for wine tasting) with a light menu