Located on a relatively quiet block in the heart of Belmont, Accanto is an upscale neighborhood spot that features a plate-licking-good buttered-walnut and ricotta romaine salad ($12), a light and delectable fritto misto ($10), along with original pasta dishes, a rich corn, lardo and ricotta cavatelli ($17) and a simple and tasty kale, prosciutto and buckwheat fettuccine ($17). It's pasta you won't find elsewhere or cook at home. Avoid the roasted cauliflower contorni ($8), which was over-charred.
3377 SE Division St., 971-229-0571, avagenes.com. 5-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday, 4:30-11 pm Saturday, 4:30-10 pm Sunday. $$$$.
For the last quarter-century or so, fine-dining Italian has meant Northern fare—pale, delicate Alfredos and risottos that could almost pass for Swiss.
Meanwhile, those of us preferring the bold, swarthy style of the south have been ghettoized to meatball subs and plastic menus. Like the Roman consul Corvus (370-270 B.C.), Ava Gene's is a powerful force for unifying Italy.
This Division Street spot does whole-boot cookery, making great use of the spicy, spreadable Calabrian pork sausage known as nduja, a hard sheep's milk cheese of Sardinia, Sicilian cannoli, Northern Italian Leporati prosciutto, and spaghetti made with protein-rich kamut wheat that could replace your whey shake. A typical meal will take you up and down the peninsula.
Order the meat plate ($15 moderate, $29 giant) with gorgeous slices of prosciutto, some herbed olives and a seasonal salad. Get a few pastas ($20-$22) and a big hunk of meat, like the pork chop with a sweet pepper and pole beans. Throughout the menu, Ava Gene's always finds its balance—between spice and starchy, saltiness and acidity, sweet and meaty. It's everything right about Italian cuisine, and all at once.
About the size of a studio apartment, with a front-facing open kitchen and Mason jars decorating the windows, DOC serves upscale, Northwest-inspired Italian in an incongruously casual, dinner-party atmosphere. Offerings are seasonal—a chili-dusted watermelon salad was the highlight of a recent late-summer visit—and the $80 prix-fixe menu is recommended, as are reservations.
A Tuscan food cart found a warm, candlelit home on Clinton, complete with one of the city's prettiest patios tucked away in the back. Also purty: the pappa al pomodoro, a warm tomato stew with a pop of garlic. It's a whole heap of one texture to get through, however—we instead recommend the roasted pork loin served with cannellini beans ($18), which varies its flavors and is a perfectly seasoned cut.
The no-nonsense Italian restaurant in a Buckman corner store gives the appearance of simplicity. There's a black-and-white-checked floor, no tablecloths and built-in bookshelves appointed with wine, pasta and tomato cans. The water is served from the tap at room temperature.
Opened by Giovanna Parolari and John Taboada not far from their flagship Navarre in 2011, Luce has earned notice from the likes of Bon Appétit by passing off impossibly good food as simple. It's like the valedictorian who secretly studies her ass off, making it all look effortless.
The homemade pastas are light, perfectly al dente and flavor-packed, putting them in a class by themselves in Portland. You can order or skip the antipastos; they're affordable at $2 a pop but are the least interesting options on the menu. If the wait staff was sometimes harried at peak hours, they had the most important tasks down: solid recommendations and quick delivery of piping-hot pasta, including Luce's spare take on tagliatelle with beef and pork ragu ($10 half, $20 full portion). The restaurant also boasts fish worth sampling, including the seabass with garlic and olives ($16) that was perfectly tender and not overspiced for a mild fish.
This is a loud restaurant—and not just when members of Pink Martini are blasting the small space with flapper standards. The dishes at Dayna McErlean's tavern offshoot from DOC are bold and rambunctious, and can edge into the needlessly demonstrative. Why the massive slab of toast, the size of a child's head, resting atop the tender half chicken and its bath of lobster mushroom cream ($18)? Why the tomatoes and corn competing for attention in the risotto? Who knows, but they are tasty.
Remember authenticity? A decade ago, it was the bright orange pylon marking the end zone. And thus the adulation for Cathy Whims' Italian bistro.
But the goalposts have moved—today's hottest restaurants tend to borrow and remix. But Nostrana is a classic, focused on authentic Piedmontese custard and thin but springy Neapolitan pizzas you snip up with scissors.
This cavernous space on the corner of a Buckman strip mall also takes wine very seriously, hiring a dedicated sommelier for evening service and maintaining a list that features spumante and orange wine. In fact, our server at lunch knew the wine program better than many beverage directors, giving interesting and informative notes on a $37 bottle of Saetti Rosso Viola. The salads, pastas and pizzas all show a steady, restrained fine-touching that delights traditionalists.
A year after disastrously early hype threw Nick and Sandra Arnerich's sunny Buckman ode to Italy into disarray, Renata remains a hive of dazzling talent that can be both perplexing and rewarding in turn.
The high-raftered space—and cursive "Mi Piace" in neon that presides over it all—smacks of Napa, but the service has settled into an easy rhythm that feels local. The pizzas in particular have improved dramatically after early stumbles, attaining Neapolitan char and fine character on the margherita, which drops to $7 at happy hour.
Chef Matthew Sigler's six- to eight-deep selection of housemade pasta ($10-$22) rotates relentlessly, if also minutely—swapping, for example, the innards of its delicately pillowy agnolotti from tender pork to achingly tender beef, or changing out the pork belly and clams on a squid-ink chitarra for an octopus sugo. But on recent visits each pasta came bathed in little a too much salt, as if tasted through a sniffle of summer allergies or before adding salty cheese. It was a persistent flaw that nagged dish after dish of otherwise delicately sumptuous food.
Related: Portland's Best Pasta
And while you can certainly wine it up here, it's the cocktails that truly soared. A dining partner refused to try anything else after a $12 vodka-elderflower-strawberry drink called 2+2=5, whose floral and fruit notes were aired out with lemon and a splash of prosecco.
Located on a quiet block in the Pearl, Piazza Italia offers the closest thing to a fast plane trip to somewhere just off the piazza, a casual yet tasty Mediterranean spot with pasta for everyone—from spaghetti marinara ($11) to pappardelle with wild boar ragu ($14). Revel in the soccer craze of jersey uniforms blanketing the ceiling indoors, or sit on the patio outside.