Portland is a long way from New Jersey, but luckily Top Chef alum and former Smokehouse Tavern owner B.J. Smith is now cooking up the kind of red sauce Italian cuisine that would make Tony Soprano smile.
Replacing the former Arbor Lodge on North Interstate Avenue, Sit Tite is a low-key neighborhood bar that serves the kind of unpretentious food you find at the numerous Italian joints spread across New Jersey and Long Island. In a nod to our nostalgia- and meme-obsessed culture, Sit Tite comes with Sopranos references aplenty, from the name itself to the cocktail menu. This is fitting considering the HBO mob show is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, and the name references one of Uncle Junior’s hangouts.
The first time I visited Sit Tite, it struck me as the kind of watering hole that exists in many Portland neighborhoods. You can shoot a little pool, play some pinball (including a Sopranos machine, naturally), watch a game, and even hop in a photo booth if things get rowdy. The food and drink menu is where things get interesting.
Cocktails are the work of partner Paul Francis, who riffs on familiar favorites and names them after Sopranos characters and moments. I adored the Commendatori ($15), a nod to the retrending espresso martini that distinguished itself with Amaro Averna, salt and frothy cold brew, giving me enough of a perk to feel like I’d been blasting lines with Christopher Moltisanti. I loved the aptly named Smoke Out Confessional ($13), with its inventive take on a Hemingway daiquiri distinguished by mezcal and elderflower. The Carrado ($13)—kind of like a Northwest mojito with rum, mint and a touch of sweet vermouth—and the Carmela ($12), with vodka and strawberry basil syrup, were on the sweet side, while Home Movies ($12) went a little too heavy on the grapefruit. These drinks may taste better on the expansive back patio on a hot summer night.
Cheap beers and a decent cocktail list can be a draw, but food is the real reason to come to Sit Tite. This is evidenced by the eclectic crowd of barflies and couples on first dates chowing down on Italian-American staples like fried mozzarella sticks ($12), abundant plates of antipasti ($14), and the deeply satisfying Caesar ($13) with its hefty garlic bread croutons, loads of flaked Parmesan and zingy citrus coating the greens.
While the pasta might be calling your name, the “sangweeches” may be the star of the show at Sit Tite, even if the semolina hoagie rolls feel lighter and fluffier—better suited for a torta—than the crustier, firmer Italian rolls you find back East. I was crooning like a lounge singer for the prosciutto and burrata ($16), with its harmonious combination of creamy cheese, honey, balsamic tang, and fatty cold cuts. The Gabagool ($14) would have the gang at Satriale’s Pork Store singing its praises, with nicely layered and not overly dense meats complemented by the zingy pop of the Italian dressing sauce and pickled peppers. I found both the chicken ($14)—properly pounded and fried to a nice crisp—and meatball Parm ($14) to be irresistibly cheesy with the oozy asiago fonduta, a sort of Italian-style queso that the Sit Tite fellas like to put on everything, including fries.
As a word of caution, the signature red sauce leans on the spicy side, giving both of these sandwiches a nice lingering heat. One can only hope there are plans to open for lunch service in the future, considering Sit Tite runs a serious sandwich game.
Most of us don’t walk into a bar and think, gee, I could sure use a giant plate of pasta right about now. The wise guys at Sit Tite whacked this mindset with a handful of pasta plates that will have you falling in amore. The fried lasagna ($18) was a favorite among my dining companions as we eagerly cut through the golden crust to grab bites of decadently layered pasta filled with Italian sausage and cheese, topped with ricotta, and resting happily in a pool of that spicy red sauce. For vegans, the baked ziti caponata ($18) let the eggplant shine through but could have benefited from a heavier broil and stronger melding of flavors.
Portland has no shortage of affordable bar food, and as much as we love cheap burgers, chicken wings, and fried chicken sandwiches, sometimes you want something a little classier with that PBR. With its belly-warming menu that feels straight out of Jersey, Sit Tite is the kind of joint that balances comfort and creativity. Salute!
DRINK: Sit Tite, 6214 N Interstate Ave., sit-tite.com. 4 pm–midnight Sunday–Thursday, 4 pm–2 am Friday–Saturday. 21+.