I knew I would like O, Cielo! when I tasted the lentils. Not many restaurants serve them, probably because not many people eat them. Even the ancient Greeks disdained lentils as poor folk's food, and too many pots of brown, gritty soup have left contemporary diners adverse. But done right, lentils are worth looking for.
And O, Cielo! does them right, combining the small green French lentils ($3.50) with a simple tomato sauce punched up by a touch of habañero chile. On a blustery Portland day, the earthy legumes satisfied, and the chile heat added an extra internal glow.
There are other things to like about this little cafe. It's wider than it is deep, with big windows stretching across the front that fill the room with light. You're as likely to hear B.B. King as Italian opera; you might even hear actual Italian when the guys from Torrefazione Italia come in for lunch and some lively calcio discussion about the shortcomings of team Lazio with owner Stefano Bruschi.
Bruschi and wife Betty Schmidt spent most of the last decade in San Francisco, where he worked at his brother's Ristorante Ideale in North Beach. His grandmother had a restaurant in Rome, and Schmidt learned to cook from her mother-in-law. Now those Bruschi family recipes are on the menu at O, Cielo!.
I'd bet that one of the tips Signora Bruschi passed along was cooking the pasta separately from the minestrone so it doesn't get mushy. The pasta in O, Cielo!'s "big soup" ($4.50 a bowl) is firmly al dente. There are countless variations on pasta e fagioli, the macaroni-and-bean dish typically served on meatless Friday but good any other day of the week. Here it's decidedly runny, more soup than sauce, and made with pinto beans, a close approximation to the borlotti beans favored in Rome.
The salads cover a big plate, enough for lunch unless you're really hungry, and are dressed simply with extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a few drops of balsamic vinegar. While more elaborate dressings have their place, I like the way good olive oil, sharpened with just a bit of acid, brings out the flavor of the salad greens.
In Italy a panino is simple, usually just bread with cheese and prosciutto, maybe a tomato slice, but never the mayo-smeared Dagwoodian constructions we call sandwiches. They're meant to be a quick snack, something handed over in a napkin and consumed with a few bites. I like them, but authentic panini are a hard sell on this side of the Atlantic. O, Cielo! wisely adapts the concept, staying true to the original but acknowledging local expectations with a sort of supersized version.
Substantial squares of fresh-baked focaccia bread are split and stuffed with meat and cheese combos, some following the simple Italian model but others beefed up with more familiar accoutrements. There's a classic prosciutto with mozzarella and tomato (all panini are $6 whole, $3.50 half), just like you can buy at the airport in Rome, and sausage with roasted peppers or soppressata (an all-pork dry salami) with provolone. Piled a bit higher, the turkey comes with red onion, tomato, arugula and Dijon mustard.
Vegetarian lasagna ($7.50) layers flat pasta with ricotta, tomato sauce, and finely diced zucchini, carrots, and mushrooms. It's substantial without being too rich, and the vegetables aren't cooked to death but retain their texture and flavor.
The dinner menu adds a couple more hot entrees. A roasted chicken breast is plain enough, but the cannellini beans flavored with garlic and balsamic vinegar pooled underneath dress it up substantially. I liked the turkey breast, sliced into cutlets, coated with bread crumbs and fried. Nicely crunchy but still moist, it resurrects the reputation of this oft-maligned cut.
We jaded critics like to sniff at tiramisu, but people love the stuff for a reason. Here the lady fingers ($3.50) exude dark coffee and bittersweet cocoa, and the mascarpone custard on top buffers the strong flavors underneath. For something a little different, come by in midafternoon for an espresso and slice of ciambella ($1.50), a buttery, not-too-sweet pound cake. That's how Italians usually eat sweets, and the practice of dessert before dinner is one worth emulating. I could make a daily habit out of the jam-filled crostata ($2.75), buttery soft tarts spread with berry or apricot preserves.
Don't go to O, Cielo! expecting a fine-dining experience. It's more of a trattoria, a family-run kitchen serving simple food. But everything's homemade, what Italians call casareccio, and flavors aren't teased out by complex preparation but come directly from good ingredients. And that, like lentils, is something you don't find every day.
911 SW 10th Ave., 222-5004
9 am9 pm Monday- Saturday $-$$ Inexpensive to Moderate
lentils, bruschetta, panini and desserts.
(say ch-yellow) literally means 'sky,' but also describes the celestial realm.
No matter how they say it in the Olive Garden ads, O, Cielo!'s grilled bread rubbed with a garlic clove and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil is the original bruschetta.