My, how things have changed. Last year, many of us were fat on the fruits of our labor, and the big question was how to get reservations at Paley's Place or Bluehour on a Friday night. Now fate laughs at us as we suffer the punishment of being too sure of our upward mobility. But change is good, and many people are getting back to the basics. If you, too, have started focusing on the value side of the culinary equation, you may have noticed that, penny per pound, pasta is about the best deal there is and makes a perfect accompaniment to unemployment. Not only is it cheap, but if you plan well you can eke several days' meals out of one.
Two pasta restaurants (one new, one re-engineered) have positioned themselves to serve the new underclass. Pastini, which recently opened in Irvington, and La Buca, on the east side near Laurelhurst, both venture to capture the stomachs of hungry victims of capitalism.
Pastini, like many businesses in the posh commercial center of Irvington, exhibits a clean corporate design--from the faux-finish texturing of its walls to the uniformly kitschy ad reproductions hanging on them. Its cute logo of a chef, in whites and toque, carrying two huge bowls of swirly pasta, is so slick even Starbucks should envy it. But then again, at least someone is supporting Portland's struggling graphics-design industry. An exposed brick wall and windows overlooking Broadway add warmth, but still the ambience is cold and impersonal.
Pastini's menu offers an extensive selection of pastas, as well as a few appetizers and sandwiches. Most of the appetizers come from the deli case, but the bruschetta classico ($3.95) and zuppa ($2.75) are prepared to order. The bruschetta, with its thick wedges of dense, chewy bread grilled to a satisfying crispness, has potential but is held back by its toppings. While the eggplant option is as bland as baby food, the tomato topping tossed in a tasty balsamic vinaigrette is in too short supply. A more successful appetizer is the zuppa, which tastes like a warm vichyssoise. Heavy cream and subtle leek embellish puréed potato, yielding a rich, elegant soup.
The spaghetti with meatballs ($6.95), a perennial tightwad staple, is just the beginning of the pasta disappointments at Pastini. Although the meatballs are a juicy, flavorful mix of coarsely ground pork and veal, the marinara sauce is sharply acidic, has little variation in seasoning, and is rife with spinachlike clumps of bitter, slimy oregano. Also, the portion of sauce is so skimpy it leaves much of the spaghetti completely naked. The ziti alla campagnola ($7.50), in contrast, has plenty of sauce, but it's is so thin that it just runs to the bottom of the bowl, leaving the other ingredients to fend for themselves. The cannelloni fruitti di mare ($8.95) is certainly memorable, but in the same way that bee stings are. The entree looks like a reheated plate of enchilada leftovers: two tortilla-esque pasta rolls stuffed with shrimp, scallops and an unidentifiable fish are smothered with marinara and a viscous, white béchamel. The edges of the pasta tubes are dry and hard, and the two sauces combine to create a lasagna-meets-clam-chowder flavor that is truly unfortunate. Times may be tough, but even macaroni and cheese out of a box is better than this.
La Buca has a lot more to offer. While there were reports of spotty food and service in its previous incarnation, the eastside location follows through with its vision. The atmosphere is friendly and warm: The walls are painted a soft yellow and decorated with original work by local artists. More importantly, the food is reliably tasty. La Buca's Caesar salad ($5.50) is delicious, the quality of its ingredients exemplified by crunchy, sweet Romaine leaves. Anchovies complement rather than compete with lemon and garlic in the dressing, and a clean, light olive oil keeps the mixture subdued. Ripe, juicy tomatoes are served on top of the bruschetta, a roasted garlic spread preventing the lightly toasted ciabatta from getting soggy. La Buca's spaghetti ($5.50-$7.50), unlike Pastini's, tastes like someone in the kitchen thought he might actually have to eat it: A variety of Italian spices can be detected, and no oregano globs lurk within. In the abituale ($7.25), a poor man's version of Three Doors Down's stellar vodka sauce, cream mellows and sweetens a spicy tomato sauce, gracefully enrobing penne quills and sweet Italian sausage. The al forno ($6.25), a casserole of fresh mozzarella, silken mascarpone, chewy ziti, and spicy marinara, is my favorite dish and definitely worth your last wad of dollar bills. Avoid the bread pudding ($2.75), however, which looks and tastes suspiciously like recycled remnants from the bottom of diners' bread baskets.
La Buca has an intimate, mellow little bar in the back behind the velvet curtains, where you can order from the menu or try one of the suave cocktails, such as a dry, sophisticated Cosmo or a sweet, citrusy Tuaca Sidecar. The endless wait-for-your-meal problem that mired this spot when it used a counter-service model seems to have been resolved--now waiters adequately sees to diners' needs. If you want to cut costs and not feel deprived, swing by La Buca; if you want to feel sorry for yourself because the bottom's fallen out, there's always Pastini.
1426 NE Broadway 288-4300 11:30 am-9 pm Monday- Thursday, 11:30 am-10 pm Friday- Saturday, 4-9 pm Sunday $ Inexpensive
Picks: Bruschetta classico (w/o the toppings), zuppa
La Buca (eastside)
40 NE 28th Ave. 238-1058 11:30 am-9 pm Monday- Wednesday,
11:30 am-10 pm Thursday- Friday, noon-10 pm Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday $ Inexpensive
Picks: Caesar salad, spaghetti pomodoro (w/o meatballs), al forno, abituale