Don Salamone puts a lot of love into his cooking—and a little guilt, too.
The chef and restaurateur spent most of his early culinary career in upscale French kitchens of the sort his working-class Italian American parents could never afford to visit. It's partly why, when he opened a place of his own, he went in the opposite direction: a no-frills, blue-collar hamburger cart.
Keeping to the all-American trifecta of fries, soft serve and a simple, fast food-style burger, Burger Stevens—the name is an inside joke with his brother-in-law—caught on quickly in Portland, allowing Salamone to expand from a parking lot along Capitol Highway to a spot in Pioneer Courthouse Square and a takeaway window at perpetually packed eastside night spot Dig A Pony.
But he still wasn't making the food closest to his heart.
"On the weekend, we'd go out and get burgers at local joints," says Salamone, recalling his youth in Rochester, N.Y., "but at home, it was always Italian food."
He's not talking spaghetti with Ragu. He means gnocchi and tripe, stuffed shells and wedding soup—the classics, as he calls them, all made from scratch. Every Sunday, his mother tended to a pot of sauce loaded with sausage, meatballs, pork necks and other pig parts. He never even knew there was such a thing as jarred tomato sauce until high school.
When the pandemic hit, Salamone saw an opportunity to finally get back in touch with his roots. While the cart downtown stays focused on burgers, Salamone and his wife, Kate, converted their Dig A Pony kitchen into Stevens Italiano, preparing traditional, rotating Italian meals twice a week, in portions big enough to guarantee leftovers. Each order contains an entree, side, salad and garlic bread, plus dessert—all for around $25.
"I'm basically taking recipes and food I grew up eating and what my parents, aunts and family still make to this day," he says. "I wanted to bring that here, because I can't get that here."
Although he estimates he has 150 Italian cookbooks at home, the recipes Salamone draws from indeed come straight from his family—he's now on the phone with them constantly, asking for advice. Over the past few weeks, that's included his uncle's sausage cacciatore, homemade gnocchi in creamy vodka sauce and, on the higher end, Sicilian-style osso buco with polenta. Much of what Salamone cooks he's making for the first time himself, and tasting it often triggers a "Ratatouille moment," transporting him back to a specific time and place from his childhood.
One such dish is his mother's eggplant Parmigiana. At once simple and completely her own, Salamone says it's unlike any he's ever had. It's back on the menu this week, so we had him break it down for us.
- In Salamone’s mother’s recipe, the eggplant is sliced thin and stacked five to six layers high. “It totally reminds me of making terrines when I worked in French restaurants,” Salamone says, “because you make it, and all night you can’t stop thinking of it.”
- The eggplant is breaded with breadcrumbs Salamone makes himself from surplus burger buns.
- The sauce is also a Mother Salamone original—just olive oil, garlic, onion, tomato, basil and crushed red pepper. “I’ll put it on and let it simmer all day,” Salamone says. “That, as well, reminds me of home.”
- The cheese—Parmesan, mozzarella and pecorino Romano—is sourced from Bartur Foods, a small purveyor just up the street from Dig A Pony. “It’s not about special ingredients or cheffy touches,” he says. “I’m just trying to re-create what my family has been eating my entire life—and their entire life.”
ORDER: Stevens Italiano, 736 SE Grand Ave., 503-801-8017, stevensitaliano.com. Pickup 4-7 pm Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. All orders must be placed by noon. See website for upcoming