"I'm going to review Lorenzo's, that Italian deli on Mississippi," I told J., my trusty reviewing partner. She put her hand lightly, ever so lightly, on mine and said, "I know you'll do the right thing."
As far as I'm aware, Lorenzo's isn't that kind of Italian deli. But one could be excused for resorting to stereotypes; from the carafes of water dotting the tables to the hulking log of mortadella in the deli case, Lorenzo's looks every inch the Italian-American cafe immortalized in far too many crime stories. Fortunately, chef-owner Lorenzo Daliana-formerly of Higgins, Zefiro and the flashy XV-takes the step many ringers don't, backing up the good looks with picture-perfect, top-notch food.
Though the surroundings-an unlovely urban mall doing double duty as a cement showroom-are less than picturesque, Lorenzo's makes decent use of its space. During daylight hours, a garage-style door is open to the elements, and light splashes around an appealing fresco of old Florence. But what in daylight feels airy and informal becomes cavernous and empty at night. Industrial light fixtures bring down the ceiling somewhat, but watch out when the fans are turned on: Those fixtures sway rather terrifyingly in the breeze.
Feel no trepidation when it comes to the food. The short chalkboard menu is concise but satisfying, drawing from all over Italy. From the antipasto plate ($7), loaded on one visit with herbed olives, tiny oil-bathed mozzarella and glistening cipolline, to a recent special of delicate chicken pâté scented with truffle oil ($6), the small plates are minimalist jewels. The same goes for a yellow-beet and albacore salad sparked with strips of peperoncini and red onion ($7) featured on the menu not too long ago, and a standout arugula "Caesar" that adds addictive chunks of toothsome, grilled ricotta salata ($6).
Larger plates, like a benchmark puttanesca ($8), or crunchy risotto cakes perched atop a rich mushroom glaze ($10), hew closely to the Italian aesthetic: Saucing is minimal, garnishes are few and portions are perfectly moderated. If it's offered, don't pass up pasta with a heady beef and onion ragoût ($10). It typifies what's best about Italian cooking: the melding of humble ingredients, simple techniques and a lot of patience.
Perhaps best of all, it's impossible to mistake the good spirits in evidence here, both in front of and behind the counter. There's none of the false Old World gravitas that deadens so many other purveyors of high-grade delicacies. If there's a downside to the rosy glow, it's the clear divide between the largely young, white and knowingly hip folks who patronize the "new" Mississippi and the longtime, largely African-American residents of the neighborhood, which was until recently considered one of Portland's most blighted. They do not appear to be partaking of the party here, or at many of the other shiny-new businesses on the Mississippi strip. One can hope that everyone who enjoys this 'hood can at least agree on the necessity for good food. You could certainly do far, far worse than this gem of a cafe.
Lorenzo's, 3807 N Mississippi Ave., 284-6200. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday. $$ Moderate.