Restaurant Guide 2013: Ava Gene's

3377 SE Division St., 971-229-0571,

[PORTLANDIA ALLA RUSTICA] Duane Sorenson's ode to Italy (and, apparently, to his daughter, Ava) is a lovely, hearth-cooked affair of comfort wrapped in surprise. Which is to say, Ava Gene's digs very deeply into Portland's provincial DNA to arrive, paradoxically, at what may be its most cosmopolitan restaurant. Stretching the local idiom to bring in ingredients from all over the world, Ava Gene's also stretches the idiom of rustic Italian: Pork steak "for two or three" combines a cucumber salad with a salsa verde, while a watermelon "salsa" tops the rib-eye. A tomato salad is spiced with shiso, a Mediterranean squid salad with jalapeno and cilantro. Still, it is rare that the restaurant smacks you in the mouth with unbalanced intensity. Rather, it coaxes you into new warm feelings, as with a beet, carrot and raisin dish pulled together by a sauce of pistachio. Classic fare such as a lamb ragu in bianca hews, meanwhile, to slow-cooked old-country traditions, and the ridiculously hearty bread plates achieve fatty richness at tuneful crescendo, just below the breaking point of excess. The cocktail menu eschews sweetness for more subtle pleasures. The Bisbee Cocktail, with gin and Dubonnet Rouge—martini and G+T at once—blends with low murmurs of dark rum and bitter Aperol. It's like a mixed-doubles tennis match on the palate. And perhaps this is the menu's essence: It is a civilized sport, played with precision and agility, then concluded with a warm handshake.

Ideal Meal: Split a pane, a couple giardini selections, a pasta and a meat plate. You are very full, but happy.

Best deal: The $9 panes are terrifically filling.

Pro Tip: If you don't still remember your Italian after countless childhood trips to Lake Como, there's a glossary beneath the menu. And remember that tap beer is labeled "alla spina."

5-11 pm daily. $$$.


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