They called Vincent Gigante "The Oddfather." For decades, the head of the Genovese family would wander the streets of Greenwich Village in a tattered bathrobe, mumbling nonsense to himself to set up an insanity defense for when he eventually got pinched. All of his calculated eccentricities didn't get him off the hook, and Gigante died in prison.
There were moments during my two meals at Omerta—named for the mafia's way of saying snitches get stitches—where I sensed a similar dynamic. The new "Old World Italian" spot managed by Kurt Huffman of ChefStable (Lardo, SuperBite, XLB), slathers itself in the red sauce of tradition, embracing the candlelit quirks of Italian fine dining in the spirit of a folklorist seeking to preserve the ancient customs of an endangered culture.
There's something refreshing about that. Omerta is an anti-Portland restaurant at a time when the city's ultra-casual formula is a bit worn. This week we're releasing our annual restaurant guide, a project that finds WW spending several months and $10,000-plus dollars eating our way around Portland to rank the city's 50 best restaurants. As you can see by picking up a free copy around town, the Portland food scene remains extraordinary. But we're also at a point where stiff competition has pushed new eateries toward a model where you may pay $75 for two, including a 20 percent tip, after waiting in a long line and without getting table service.
Omerta is the opposite of all that, something that's immediately obvious after hoisting up massive flat-board menus roughly the size and weight of a laptop, which somehow still don't include the specials. Your server may spend a few minutes detailing these with ramrod posture and arms held taut behind the back.
In a city where service seems to seesaw between aloof and overly familiar, Omerta sends out a full brigade. After ordering, you're surrounded by a tornado of sleeves dispensing antipasto. The cacio e pepe is prepared tableside by a server who tosses it in a hollowed-out wheel of cheese. Your plates and silverware are snapped up between each course, and every crumb will be swept up as the baby boomers at the table across the room assess support for "our bill" at the Statehouse and try to remember what day their housekeeper is coming.
You'll never get a great video loop of Omerta's pasta prep because, in an era when some new restaurants paint one wall to become a Instagram backdrop, Omerta sits in a dim catacomb beneath the Dossier hotel. The space is so dark the servers carry pen lights to help you read the menu. You can't post that grainy video anyway, because there's no cell service down here.
Unfortunately, so many of these little rituals are minor distractions from execution that's far from flawless.
Omerta does have some very nice dishes, to be sure. That starts with the cocktails, which were uniformly excellent. Highly recommended is the Horse Head ($12, no apparent connection to the classic Horse's Neck) which is a very well-rounded blend of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, apricot liqueur, amaretto and falernum.
After your drinks will come the complimentary antipasto—expect a little hunk of hard cheese and some farro—and housemade foccacia.
The pastas are very up and down. On one side, you have an excellent rigatoni di coniglio ($26) with braised rabbit and black olives, and the gemelli con funghi with potent wild mushrooms, arugula, pine nuts and a white wine sauce ($24). Both were perfectly al dente with umami-dense sauces. But on the other side, our tortelloni ($25) was terrible, with an overwhelming torrent of pungent goat cheese and earthy fennel battling a bracing lemon butter and losing. And the pappardelle ($24) in a traditional meat sauce was doughy and undercooked.
The meats followed a similar hit-and-miss pattern. We were wowed by the hulking 20-ounce ribeye ($65 with seasonal vegetables), which was carved perfectly by our waiter tableside. But the veal osso bucco ($45 with saffron risotto) was braised in an overly sweet sauce that dissuaded us from spending too much time sawing through the tough shank with a knife ill-equipped for the job.
Desserts are appropriately rich—the trio of chocolate and pistachio cannoli is recommended.
Ultimately, the most endearing moments at Omerta were two tiny service missteps that revealed the place's humanity and reminded me I wasn't at Epcot. At one point, our server knocked over my red wine and broke character, yelping out "Shit!" before he could recollect himself.
Then, when we left, we had to ask the host for our coats.
"Oh no!" she said. "They were supposed to cue me that you were leaving so I could present them to you, as if by magic!"
She was defeated, but I was charmed.
This is Portland—our food scene has a different kind of magic.
Omerta, 614 SW Park Ave., 503-294-9700, omertaportland.com. Sunday-Thursday 5-9:45 pm, Friday and Saturday 5-10:45 pm.