Best for: Life-altering local produce served alone or with delicate pasta.
A steak can be in-your-face. Spices are often assertive. But one would rarely couple the adjective "pushy" with vegetables—unless describing a parent insistent on clean plates. For the past seven years, though, Ava Gene's has sought to reshape the way diners think about the components in their meals—particularly the plants—which is why it displays the catchphrase "Aggressively Seasonal" on its menu. That's actually the motto of chef Joshua McFadden's restaurant group, but perhaps no other place engenders such a deep appreciation for produce. And if you assume celery and nectarines can't be life-changing, better think again. The pursuit of fresh in the kitchen is unrelenting, but the dark red leather booths and white marble accents give Ava Gene's an air of old elegance, more like a storied steakhouse in Manhattan. You can find cuts of meat on the menu, like rib-eye or pork saltimbocca, but the handmade pasta is the best foundation for the bounty of one of the local farms the restaurant partners with. If one bite of noodles and sauce could sum up a season, it would be the agnolotti ($25). In early September, the dish, with ethereal pockets of buttery dough, delicately sweet kernels of corn, habanada peppers with a heat that builds but never burns and two cheeses, was summer slipping away on the palate. Pair your pasta with just about anything from the giardini section, the likes of which you may never see again due to the nature of farming yields—so might as well spring for the three board ($35). ANDI PREWITT.
Estes + Dame
Best for: Seasonal dining with a strong Italian bent from a chef on the comeback trail.
Since leaving the Paley's Place kitchen as its executive chef, Patrick McKee has endured his share of troubles: unsuccessful independent ventures, acknowledging alcoholism and trudging the path of sobriety, and most recently suffering the untimely loss of his young son. A lesser person might have buckled. But McKee's efforts at his recently opened restaurant within the wine bar Dame point, instead, to a stronger, sharper and more mature individual and chef. On a late summer visit to this small, rustic dining room on a busy street corner, dish after dish delighted. The best were vegetarian offerings: a knockout risotto ($14, $24), chock-full of late summer produce, the flavor deepened by a basil hazelnut pesto; a leek and potato soup embellished with pecorino and a splash of sherry vinegar; and a romaine and braised farro salad ($14), elevated by the addition of leek, fennel, feta and balsamic. The meaty pasta dishes weren't far behind. Cappelletti ($25) with corn and pancetta was a fine score as was rabbit cavatelli ($26), the caterpillar-shaped shells and abundant chunks of meat came resting in a rich guanciale-enhanced broth. No doubt about it, Estes is a definite up-and-comer. MICHAEL C. ZUSMAN.
Best for: Date nights you'll want to broadcast on Instagram.
Luce is for lovers. The adorably diminutive Italian restaurant—with black-and-white checkered floors as well as open-cupboard walls filled with wines, oils and houseplants whose foliage drapes over the shelving—oozes romanticism. The fact that it's not a white-tablecloth restaurant with tuxedoed servers and delicate glassware only adds to Luce's charm. You really can't go wrong with any of the handmade pasta dishes, which all feature light, fresh and expertly cooked noodles. Most of the vegetable offerings are seasonal. And on a recent visit, the cavatelli with a stewlike tomato sauce, only thinner, creamy ricotta salata and chard ($13, $26), was a flavorful standout. An order of the thick tagliatelle noodles, with finely ground beef and pork in a sweet ragu sauce, was also a buttery, Parmesan-crusted Italian comfort classic ($13, $26). The half-portions are surmountable, so it's worth shelling out a little extra for starters, such as the cucumber onion salad, which comes with large squares of freshly grilled bread and a drizzle of savory herbs and olive oil ($7, $14). Diners on a budget won't be disappointed with the house red wine ($7), which is light and tart and pairs nicely with the rich pasta. ELISE HERRON.
Best for: Wood-fired pizza, handmade pasta and an expansive wine program.
Compared to larger cities on either coast, Portland's relative passivity toward fine Italian restaurants is easy to interpret as a knock on our collective level of refinement. Truth be told, we really need only a small handful of such places, and Nostrana is so far the most acclaimed and iconic. The crux of the menu is chef Cathy Whims' award-winning vision of elegant Italian dishes served family style in a massive arklike space where you're more likely to hear Beck than Bocelli. Start with the Insalata Nostrana ($12), which features bitter radicchio, flaky aged Parmigiano and tangy Caesar dressing. From there, the menu diverges into three familiar territories. The first is a collection of pizzas, with chewy, tender crusts and impossibly fresh toppings like the mozzarella, tomato and basil on the simple margherita ($14), or the headline-grabbing salami on the Salumi ($18), with honey and Mama Lil's Peppers. The gooey goat cheese-stuffed pappardelle (price varies) is a standout on the pasta menu, and the "Secondi" section is where you'll find shareable protein dishes like a Painted Hills flat-iron steak enlivened by a generous drizzle of garlic- and rosemary-infused oil as well as crispy arugula. PETE COTTELL.
Best for: Modern takes on Italian red sauce favorites.
Old Portland's icons—restaurants, bars and retailers—are ceremoniously mourned when booted aside for new construction projects or higher rents. But what about Old Old Portland and its cultural landmarks? Renata actually serves as a bridge from that pre-Old Portland to the city's New incarnation. Co-owner Nick Arnerich spent part of his early childhood in his father's well-regarded supper club, Delevan's, which occupied the historic firehouse on Northwest 14th Avenue and Glisan Street. Though it only lasted a few years in the early 1980s, the establishment must have made an impact on Arnerich, who went into business feeding well-heeled diners, and the dishes at Renata come off as modern spins on the Italian red sauce favorites you might have seen on menus during that earlier era. Though they'll fill you up quickly, start with the meatballs ($15) and maybe only have one if you can help it. A little cauldron steaming with a tart-sweet marinara also contains a quartet of golf-ball sized spheres kept moist by a layer of shredded Grana Padano. The colorfully named strozzapreti ($22)—translated as "strangle the priest"—shouldn't be a choking hazard provided you chew the al denti, Twizzler-shaped noodles—the little grooves are perfect for trapping breadcrumbs in this Bolognese pasta. But by far the best thing I've eaten at Renata this year was a deceptively simple composition of U-shaped scarpinocc, tangy Taleggio and balsamic vinegar, which was rolled out last summer when Nick's wife and co-owner, Sandra Arnerich, assumed the role of head chef. ANDI PREWITT.