Resplendent in marble, brass and dark wood, Ava Gene's is perhaps Southeast Portland's closest analog to a clubby institution nestled against the West Hills, except with Roman-inspired Italian fare instead of, say, steak.
Chef Joshua McFadden does not mess around when it comes to vegetables—he literally wrote the book on modern preparations of seasonal produce, and his Burnside Mediterranean spot Tusk is at the forefront of a green revolution in Portland.
So it comes as no surprise the Giardini section of Ava Gene's menu reads like the ingredients from a particularly challenging episode of "Chopped"—celtuce, fennel, colatura, sprouted barley—yet the dishes come out as perfectly composed fine art. Such as a recent tomato-and-basil salad that incorporated lovage, compressed orange honeydew melon and roasted Tropea onion for sweet and herbal notes, or a raw kale salad balanced with salty Sarvecchio cheese and crunchy bread crumbs.
There are also meat and seafood entrées, but roll with the housemade pastas, some of which are made with house-milled flour. Especially, get the cavatelli with ricotta-enriched dough and a butter-and-cheese sauce studded with roasted fennel, lamb sausage and mint. It's just like your nonna would make, if she maintained an open kitchen staffed with highly choreographed, unflappable cooks in matching ballcaps.
Pro tip: Sit at the chef's counter to watch the show. Order anything from the Giardini section and a pasta, and pair it with a house-bottled Negroni Sbagliato with campari, vermouth and prosecco ($12): It complements just about anything on the menu.