Earlier this summer, a good friend and I embarked for the first time on the epic journey that is The Sopranos, launching into a world of Tony, Paulie Walnuts, bada-bings, unethical therapy and bullets shot into the backs of so many heads.
Apparently, we were not alone in our sudden, inescapable draw to a mob show that debuted in 1999. The New York Times even ran a think piece, in late September, arguing The Sopranos is experiencing a resurgence among young leftists. “The show’s depiction of contemporary America as relentlessly banal and hollow is plainly at the core of the current interest in the show, which coincides with an era of crisis across just about every major institution in American life,” NYT story editor Willy Staley wrote.
But for me, The Sopranos just makes me hungry. It’s a love letter to food from the first episode, when little A.J. Soprano, upon learning his grandmother isn’t going to make it to his birthday party, exclaims: “So what? No fucking ziti now?” (I think about this line a lot.) It’s Tony eating a T-bone with eggs at 7 am after a long night of drinking and doing lines off Icelandic stewardesses’ boobs, and it’s countless plates of pasta at their beloved Vesuvio restaurant.
Portland isn’t known for its traditional East Coast red sauce joints, where chicken piccata and eggplant Parm overflow onto red-checked tablecloths and your server has worked there for 35 years. I don’t contend that any place here is going to fully satisfy a transplant with strong opinions on manicot. But that doesn’t mean the cravings don’t demand satisfaction, and with that in mind, we schlepped to five East Coast Italian restaurants—a few very traditional, a couple that are more modern in approach—to help you find the right meatball for your rewatch.
Bocci’s on 7th
1728 SE 7th Ave., 503-234-1616, boccison7th.com. 4-9 pm Friday-Sunday.
For each of these meals, I brought along my Sopranos-watching pal, who is from New York and also has an Italian last name that ends in o, Bocci’s, we agreed, was somehow it.
The small space on Southeast 7th isn’t hip, but it avoids being stodgy. It’s not gourmet but is still wonderfully delicious. We walked in and were greeted by super warm staff, the sounds of Bob Dylan floating from the kitchen and free house-baked bread—dense and soft with a crusty, salty edge—with olive oil and vinegar.
Bocci’s meatballs (sausage and beef) were just the right consistency, drenched in cheese and perfectly spiced. The lasagna’s tasty layers of ricotta and sausage, baked into a dish, had a lovely cheese crispiness on the edges. The star was the chicken Marsala: a generous chicken breast lightly breaded and still very moist, served piping hot over spaghetti and a marsala wine sauce that was buttery and rich without being painfully decadent. Then the amaretto chocolate cake was a puff ball of just-boozy frosting that tastes like what you want those gross alcohol-filled chocolates you’d sneak from your parents to taste like.
All in all, two appetizers, two entrees, a bottle of very drinkable barbera (Tasmorcan “badger” for $30 a bottle) and dessert set us back only $100 plus tip. This is my Vesuvio’s.
DeNicola’s Italian Restaurant
3520 SE Powell Blvd., 503-239-5221, denicolasitaliandining.com. 4-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 4-10 pm Friday-Saturday.
An institution on Southeast Powell since 1978, DeNicola’s remains family-owned to this day. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a booth under a framed portrait of current owner Donata, who runs it with her sons and brother. There are red-checked tablecloths and a map of Italy on your table, and your order of cheese-laden eggplant Parmesan will come with a side of spaghetti, just as God intended.
There’s veal, and a decent bottle of chianti for $30. The food is not subtle or refined, but you’re not here for that. I loved the meatballs, which were the right blend of spice and meat-to-binder ratio. We got that side, eggplant Parm, manicotti, antipasto, a bottle of wine, a cannoli, and tip for like $100. Boom.
901 NE Oneonta St., 503-841-6195, campanapdx.com. 5-9 pm Wednesday-Sunday.
Opened just before the pandemic, in the former Grand Army Tavern space in Woodlawn, Campana has flourished. Run by a husband-and-wife team from Manhattan, chef George Kaden and Annalisa Maceda, Campana claims East Coast cred, but strays from a typical red sauce spread.
There’s no chicken Parmesan or giant baskets of garlic bread, but there is a beautifully balanced Americano cocktail (Campari, Cocchi Torino and soda) on the happy hour menu for $7, a gorgeous Caesar with an ample hit of anchovy and the best pasta we tried on our tour. Campana’s spaghetti and meatballs—which I ordered at every spot—featured a bright sauce, a perfect pork and beef meatball and fresh pasta that kept its al dente bite. While you’re looking at $20 to $30 entrees, the quality makes up for it. Aaaaand, it’s happy hour pricing all night if you sit at the bar, where you can get full plates of select pastas for just $12.
8051 SE 13th Ave., 503-233-4613, ginossellwood.com. 4-9 pm daily.
Another longtime Italian favorite (open since 1996), Gino’s in Sellwood has strong neighborhood vibes. Dining outdoors in the fall, we were surrounded by multigenerational families digging into its iconic Grandma Jean’s ragù—a long-simmered stew of tomatoes, pork ribs, beef and pepperoni—served over penne and indulging in the tiramisu for dessert.
I’ll be back for the oversized pork chop that’s marinated in milk, fennel and sage, served over a heap of mashed potatoes with vegetables (though not a side of spaghetti as well, sadly), and to check out the extensive, but reasonably priced, list of Italian reds.
7955 N Lombard St., 503-894-9096, gabagoolpdx.com. 4-9 pm daily.
(To the tune of “Eleanor Rigby”): Tony Soprano, cares for the ducks who live in his pool, eats gabagool. (I stole this from a meme.)
I mean, we had to go to Gabagool. As its website says, gabagool is how southern Italians pronounce capicola on the East Coast. FYI for those who want to keep eating outdoors though the pandemic winter: This former food cart turned counter service restaurant in St. Johns has the warmest heated outdoor patio I have ever encountered.
Gabagool, despite the name, doesn’t fit the bill for a red sauce restaurant, but it does make its pastas and pizzas from scratch. The best thing we tried was an order of grilled oyster mushrooms served over arugula with lemon oil and pecorino Romano. It’s a recipe I’d like to steal. Unfortunately, the housemade pasta was a touch overcooked, and the meatballs, made with grass-fed beef, were oddly dense. However, the signature gabagool sandwich is just $13 and sports a heap of capicola ham, finocchiona salami and mozzarella, topped with romaine, marinated tomatoes, hot peppers, and oil and vinegar. It would give even Tony’s seasoned stomach a reason to reach for the Tums (in a good way).