When Assaggio opened in the early '90s, many Portlanders had not learned to say pasta; "spaghetti" was their word, and canned tomato the sauce. So the Sellwood neighborhood restaurant's signature style—a trio of pastas for the table—was a welcome innovation, introducing us to pasta tossed with wild mushrooms, with seafood in cream, or with butternut squash.
Assaggio's cheery, warm decor and menu format, which changes weekly—dishes disappearing and reappearing according to seasonal ingredients and the staff's whim—have not changed much over the years. The bruschette ($8.75) of grilled toast piled high with creamy cannellini beans or diced portobellos slathered in warm goat cheese are still hearty appetizers, the ingredients cascading so abundantly over the plate that you must use knife and fork.
But sadly, perhaps due to the restaurant changing ownership last year or the distraction of opening a Beaverton location, something has gone wrong: Much of its cooking is a faded anachronism and its service sloppy. Pastas are seldom of a quality you couldn't beat in your own kitchen. Redemption comes from the lengthy wine list, a superb collection of Italian regional varieties. But if Assaggio is to be more than a snappy wine bar, somebody needs to rethink what they're up to.
For starters, the flimsy silverware looks and feels as if it came out of a junior-high-school cafeteria. And for finishers, no one cleaned off the scattering of greasy mushrooms from our appetizers, the residue of which lingered for the entire meal, making an unappetizing puddle around our desserts. In between, there were numerous problems. Take the bagna cauda ($6.25), the hot Piemontese dip of butter, oil, garlic and anchovy for raw vegetables. It is imperative that the dip be pungent and kept warm. Assaggio's version, served in a cold bowl, got progressively cooler as it congealed, while the ordinary vegetables arrayed around it were unappealing. It was removed from the menu last week. On another occasion, two separate antipasti arrived on the same plate, roasted onions fighting for space with Montegrappa cheese and splices of raw, hard, tasteless pear ($5.25 each), the whole mess swimming in both fig molasses and a béchamel sauce.
Among the pastas, the seasonal puttanesca ($13.25) serves to illustrate a problem. It was dull, tasteless, without the verve that marks this preparation. Anchovies, a sine qua non of puttanesca, are optional here, and even with them the dish was so bland that apprentice prostitutes from Naples would turn up their noses.
Assaggio serves a few non-pasta main courses. A lackluster chicken breast was rescued by a wrap of salty prosciutto and a dash of truffle oil ($16.75). But a recent order of baked cod ($17.25) arrived overcooked, dry and flavorless.
Momentary salvation comes with splendid homemade gelati ($3.50-$6.25) and a fine chocolate torte ($5.25) bathed in tart amarena cherries with their accompanying juices. You leave with a good taste in your mouth, but it's not quite enough to salvage a disappointingly pedestrian experience.
Assaggio, 7742 SE 13th Ave., 232-6151. Lunch 11 am-2:30 pm Monday-Friday, dinner 5-9 pm Sunday-Thursday and 5-9:30 pm Friday-Saturday. 14500 Murray Scholls Drive, Beaverton, 579-8000. Same hours as Portland location. $$ Moderate.