Not to take anything way from the awesome brewpubs and hard-drinking eateries that dot the weedy stretch of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard that lies between the Willamette River and Southeast 12th Avenue, but sometimes you just want to eat lunch at someplace pretty. And like an early Christmas present, a more upscale, new Italian-ish spot called Iorio (912 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 445-4716) opened two weeks ago right across from the Lucky Lab. First of all, let's get the pronunciation thing out of the way, it's "Eye-Oreo"—a combination of sounds that makes us hungry in some screwed-up kind of way. And second, let it be known that Eye-Oreo's chef Chris Thompson, who opened this joint with his fiancée, Hilary Benson, used to work for Portland City Grill progenitor Atwater's, Southpark and Aramark, that global behemoth of corporate catering mediocrity.
No matter. The wide, red-walled space of Iorio (which is actually Thompson's great-grandmother's maiden name), currently decked out in heaps of holiday flair, is a gracious family eatery, not a business buffet. Cooking for 1,000-plus people a day at the Oregon Convention Center (among other national assignments) only helped to teach this local-produce-lovin' chef how to prepare happy-making sandwiches, soups and pastas for cheapster prices (lunch tops out at $11, duck goes for $16 at dinner).
We can't vouch for the restaurant's dinner menu, but on a recent lunch date, Bite Club's manly companion gushed over Thompson's rich, super-sweet winter beet salad, a warm stack of greens, tangy blue cheese and vibrant slabs of golden and garnet beets. Thompson slowly roasts his bulbs and then marinates them in what the chef calls his "holy oil," a light mix of olive and soybean oils tricked out with herbs and dried chile flakes.
The subtle heat of chiles also made a cameo on Bite Club's plate, piled high with little, hand-rolled casarecci pasta, hearty greens and Manila clams slip-slidin' around in a creamy (not cloying) alfredo-style sauce. My gawd, on a 25-degree day this is the equivalent of an edible electric blanket. One holiday wish, though: Ditch that bland garlic-eggplant dip.
More proof of this neighborhood's budget-conscious evolution? Right next door to Iorio, the two-month-old Wine Garage (908 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 232-5605) posts an eye-catching sign that says "nothing over 13 dollars." Charles Trester, the former chef who runs the joint, says there's a jump in quality between wine that costs $13 and $20—anything in between ain't worth the price.
To taste-test, Bite Club picked up the cheapskate's New Year's recommendation, a $10.50 bottle of Domaine Saint-Vincent, a half-pinot, half-chardonnay sparkler from French Champagne house Gruet's smaller Albuquerque, N.M., operation (who knew?). It tasted golden-delicious. Guess our last minute holiday shopping is done.