Last Tuesday, WW reported that freelance food writer Michael C. Zusman had been cut from the food pages of The Oregonian.
Zusman, who has written restaurant reviews and features about food for the daily for five years, sent an email about his dismissal to several food writers in Portland. He wrote that he believed the reason was an "ambivalent" restaurant review he had written two weeks prior. Zusman says his editor, DeAnn Welker asked him to make the review of Gilda's, an Italian restaurant in Southwest Portland, more positive. Zusman said he refused and she subsequently spiked the piece. Two weeks later, Welker informed Zusman that his services were no longer required. Contacted by WW, Welker would not comment on the details of the Gilda's review, but insisted that any dispute she had with Zusman about it was not the reason he was later dismissed. Instead, she said, Zusman's services were no longer needed because earlier this year, the paper appointed staff writer Michael Russell as a full-time restaurant reporter and critic.
Zusman, who is a lawyer and works for the state as a Circuit Court referee, provided WW with a copy of his review. Here it is:
My parents love Gilda’s. My brother loves Gilda’s. My aunt and uncle love Gilda’s too. So, believe me, as a good son, brother and nephew, I wanted to love Gilda’s, a sweet little year-old Italian spot in the midst of the west downtown dead zone bounded by Burnside Street, Eighteenth Avenue, Salmon Street and the I-405 freeway.
The family imperative as much defines Gilda’s as it did my predisposition to adore it. The name, pronounced with a soft “g” sound, as though spelled “Jill-da’s,” is shared with chef-owner Marco Roberti’s grandmother and mentor. The predominant design feature of the simple but warm 40-seat space are the photos of what must be multiple generations of the Roberti family. The Gilda’s website also serves as a tribute to the chef’s family and his Italian heritage. Rich aromas waft from an open kitchen infusing the dining room with the perfume of garlic, tomato and herbs – memories of a mealtime visit to your nonna’s home.
Another reason I wanted to love Gilda’s: the generally sad state of Italian dining in Portland, especially venues focusing on traditional “red sauce” dishes – shorthand for the saucy, cheesy, meaty items, often southern Italian in origin and involving pasta – that east coast transplants and baby boomers associate, right or wrong, with authentic Italian food. Beyond the faux Italian chains and a handful of mediocre independents, the typically vibrant local restaurant scene is notably lacking in simple but sublime places to eat old-school Italian. Could Gilda’s be the long-awaited standard bearer?
Afraid not. Despite my inclination to anoint Gilda’s as a worthwhile local family Italian favorite, multiple visits verify that it rarely moves the dial beyond “just OK.” Exceptions were an extraordinary sformatino appetizer ($10), a custardy amalgam of pea and artichoke embellished with creamy, cheesy fonduta; the decidedly global ahi crudo ($11), chunks of luscious, sinew-free raw fish and avocado barely bound together, tempered with a touch of lemon and accented with dual garnishes of tomato confit and agrodolce (Italian for “sweet and sour”) onion; and braciole ($23) a tomato sauce- and bacon-enhanced pinwheel of thin-sliced beef rolled around a filling of pecorino romano cheese, garlic and parsley. Simple seared scallops ($22) were also first-rate.
Far too many menu selections, however, were flawed enough to raise an eyebrow. The arancini ($7) – balls of risotto and cheese coated in crumbs, then fried - looked good, like the little oranges they are named for, but tasted as though they had been prepared well ahead of time and frozen. Whatever the preservation technique, the crisp-on-the-outside croquettes were nowhere close to the quality of the best made-to-order versions.
Also receiving a yellow alert: the rotating veal specials. Including veal on an Italian classics menu is one of those it’s-about-time moves, the shrill anti-meat bleating of the anthropomorphists and other elites notwithstanding. And the meat itself used in Gilda’s veal specials was a fork-tender delight. But execution of veal piccata on one visit and veal tartufata on a second didn’t do justice to the too-seldom seen foundational protein. Each offering was overbreaded and oversauced, the former defect muddling both taste and texture. The tangy flavor profile of a proper piccata swung too far to the tart side here while the anticipated truffles in the namesake dish failed to materialize either on the plate or palate.
Even “Grandma’s meatballs,” with spaghetti ($18) or on their own as a starter ($8) needed help. The pork/beef combination, with plenty of herbs thrown in, tasted great, but the balls had a spongy texture from too much bread in the mix.
The overarching theme among the many dishes I tried at Gilda’s was a lack of attention to execution. The ideas may be great, rooted as most are in a splendid family-centered tradition, but if they aren’t translated effectively to the plate, all the tradition in the world won’t merit critical praise or commercial success.
Service too suffers at Gilda’s. In contrast to the common local gripe about indifference and attitude, the problem here once again boils down to simple inattentiveness. On two occasions with different servers – both of whom were perfectly pleasant and eager to please – orders were botched, once a second time after clarification. For this, there is no good excuse. Sweetly fumbled service – with plenty of smiles and apologies – is easier to tolerate as its happening than the snotty or condescending style, but neither makes a patron want to rush back for another visit.
In perspective, there is plenty to like at Gilda’s despite its flaws. The problems, though wide-ranging, seem resolvable with additional time and effort. And it’s easy to root for that result – at least for the sake of family.
Cuisine and scene: Homey traditional Italian and seafood dishes in hospitable surroundings.
Recommended: Sformatino, tuna and other seafood; braciole
Vegetarian friendly? One or more options in all sections of the menu except for the meat-centered mains
Sound level: Quiet to moderate
Beverages: Wine and nonalcoholic drinks only
Extras: Easy access via MAX (one block from station); happy hour menu
Price range: Appetizers and salads, $7-$12; entrees, including pasta and rice, $14-$23; less at lunch
Serving: Lunch and dinner, Monday-Friday; dinner only Saturday and Sunday
Info: 1601 S.W. Morrison St.; 503-224-0051; gildasitalianrestaurant.com
For a different perspective on Gilda's, see WW's review here.