Portland chefs love to go off script.
Often, that takes the form of a pop-up, where the standard menu is shelved in favor of new dishes built around a theme, whether it's a single ingredient, a family tradition or an inspirational trip abroad. And every once in a while, the whim of the cook aligns perfectly with the desire of Portland's diners—like a culinary eclipse that ultimately leads to a whole lot of people to the same place at the same time for the same attraction.
The most successful example is probably Ken's Artisan Pizza. Before customers gathered around the igloo-shaped oven in the restaurant on Southeast 28th Avenue to watch pizziolas toss dough, they queued up at Ken Forkish's bakery every Monday night, when staff stayed late and switched from kneading bread to spinning the discs that would eventually become known as the best wood-fired crusts in town.
Campana may not yet have the name recognition that Ken's does, but the origin stories are similar. The monthly—sometimes twice monthly—pasta night held at Woodlawn nose-to-tail butchery and sandwich shop Grand Army Tavern quickly gained momentum after launching in 2018. The lines snaking out the door amassed by word-of-mouth rather than any organized ad campaign, and that growing popularity spurred owners George Kaden and Annalisa Maceda to figure out a better way to meet demand for their Italian dinners. So they transformed an under-utilized boxcar-sized room just off the entrance into Campana, which, unlike the tavern, has full table service and accepts reservations.
A meal at the 5-month-old "trattoria within a tavern" feels like falling through a wormhole and landing in a classic New York red-sauce joint. It's not an accident: Kaden started his career in the Big Apple, working under Food Network star and James Beard Foundation Award winner Marco Canora. At his East Village Tuscan American restaurant Hearth, which received a two-star review in The New York Times, Kaden was promoted to chef de cuisine.
Count me among the thankful that Kaden has returned to his roots. Grand Army has long been one of the most egregiously underrated eateries in the city—blame, perhaps, the relatively far-flung location, but you'd think a restaurant with a celebrity chef connection and snout-to-tail pork dishes would get a lot more attention. That all might change, now that Kaden has made space for the Italian cooking that was integral to his on-the-job education, and a genre he was eager to revisit.
The one consistency in Kaden's kitchen, aside from quality, is that the ingredients are always in flux. Produce sourced from Lil' Starts, a 2-acre urban farm less than 3 miles away in Northeast Portland, will drive many decisions about what goes on the menu. In mid-January, the latest haul meant a healthy dose of winter greens, which showed up in everything from the risotto to the cannelloni ($18), a trio of short, fat cigarlike tubes stuffed with a robust mixture of creamy ricotta and shreds of spinach. Doused in marinara and a béchamel to keep the pasta from drying out in the oven, the entire dish was as rich and filling as anything made with meat. If you're aiming to sample some of Kaden's butchered pigs, the plump, supple cavatelli ($18) made a fine base for a hearty pork ragu—it practically demands to be your go-to Sunday night comfort food.
Campana makes the ordering easy by offering a three-course road map—salad, pasta and a dessert—for $37. For your starter, there are several dressed vegetables to choose from, but the Insalata Mista ($12 separately) offers the most surprising confetti of plants, which changes with the season. During my visit, the bitter radicchio and lacy fronds of frisée were accompanied by a slightly sweeter medley of shaved carrots, radishes and celery, as well as fried shallots that resembled tiny onion rings, all of it glistening thanks to a sheen of red wine vinaigrette.
It may sound too ambitious for your stomach, but you really should spring for at least one of the sides. Rugged and spongy campagnolo bread thick as a hockey puck ($5) comes soaked in a spread of butter, garlic and four indulgent cheeses: taleggio, grana padano, pecorino Romano and Gorgonzola. If nothing else, you'll need another carb to help you wipe your dish clean of any remaining sauce.
And while polenta ($5) is often relegated to the role of second fiddle—the bottom layer for some hunk of protein to sit on—Kaden lets the Camas Country Mill red flint cornmeal shine on its own. The coarse grains simmer for hours, turning them into a soft, piping-hot porridge spiked with quick-fried sage and rosemary.
Unlike the dishes, the room Campana now calls home feels a bit thrown together—something like the spartan bedroom a newly separated dad welcomes his kids to during his weekends. It's a little cold, a bit bare, with a few too many white walls, augmented by one of those vintage Italian posters ubiquitous to any trattoria worth its red-checked tablecloth. Not that it matters much—your head will be buried too far in your plate to consider the décor.
EAT: Campana at Grand Army Tavern, 901 NE Oneonta St., 503-841-6195, campanapdx.com. 5-9 pm Wednesday-Sunday.