Journeyman chef Johnny Nunn's new Italian joint in Northeast Portland is called Corzetti, which food nerds will recognize as the name of an obscure variety of pasta shaped like an oversized coin. Symbolism aside, Corzetti joins the legion of decent but unremarkable local Italian restaurants, the kind of place worth a visit from the nearby neighborhood, but probably not from across town.
When I say Nunn is a journeyman, I'm looking back a full decade. Nunn ran the kitchens at soon-to-close RingSide Fish House, long-shuttered Brasserie Montmartre, West Linn's Five-O-Three and, most recently, Verdigris—none of which could ever be considered a culinary superstar. Before that, Nunn's résumé notes role-player stints at Eleven Madison Park in New York and Farallon in San Francisco, so it's fair to infer Nunn knows what it takes to achieve excellence.
So far, though, Corzetti's pasta- and meatballs-focused menu can only be characterized as a mixed success. A reasonably portioned bowl of the namesake dish ($17) featured the silver-dollar-sized discs of pasta stamped with stars and swirls combined with a few plump mussels, large chunks of underseasoned sausage, tender tags of leek and bits of Calabrian chili. Overall, a competent composition, though the thickness of the corzetti left them a shade on the chewy side of al dente.
A good-sized square of smoked pork and ricotta lasagna ($16) was flavorful enough, though neither of the keynote ingredients sang above the chorus. Another pasta, the cavatelli ($16), was also average. Asparagus, corn and mushrooms accompanied the pasta in a thin, bland Parmesan cream. The mushrooms were coarsely chunked creminis—basically brown-button mushrooms—and domineering threads of purple onion had been added to the bowl unannounced. The larvae-shaped pasta were cooked well, but were not uniform in size or shape. A side order of cannelini beans ($6) was egregiously undercooked, leaving them chalky and nearly inedible.
Though the menu lacks a regular slate of meat, fish or poultry entrees, the daily rotating specials compensate somewhat. In fact, the most enjoyable main dish I sampled was Tuesday's "cast iron" chicken for two ($33). The cast iron never made it to the table, but the entire boned and sliced breast and thighs of the skin-on bird were presented on a platter hot, juicy and assertively seasoned. The only demerit was the odd, unwelcome hint of sweetness in the "jus" on the platter. An accompanying bowl of cheesy polenta—"grits," insisted my part-time Southern dining companion—was even better than the chicken itself, but sadly counterpointed by more of those boring mushrooms.
If the other nightly specials—including gnocchi with braised lamb ($19) on Thursday and shellfish cioppino with spaghetti ($18) on Friday—meet the standard set by the chicken, I would be less skeptical about Corzetti's prospects as anything beyond a neighborhood standby.
Frankly, in the "new" Portland restaurant economy, it's tough to make it even as a cozy local hangout. Merely decent restaurants are everywhere, slugging it out with each other on top of low-overhead food carts, pop-ups and fast-casual burger, sandwich and taco slingers. It doesn't help Corzetti that it's located in a barely noticeable storefront just west of Northeast 15th Avenue, down the block from two other popular, well-established places, Pok Pok Noi and Grain and Gristle.
What is most frustrating about Corzetti is the feeling that, with just a little care and attention to detail, it could become something well above average. It should go without saying that you have to get all the little things right if you want to succeed, and earn the coin that comes with the territory.