Certain restaurants are just like certain people: You know you’re gonna like them from the first moment you lay eyes on them.
Gabbiano’s and I clicked right away thanks to its warm, bustling interior with hand-painted Italian fresco walls, a line cook pounding out chicken breasts for Parm in the back, and a “When you’re here, you’re family,” vibe that Olive Garden can only fake.
And I’m not alone in feeling that love. Open since January and run by Portland restaurant veterans David Sigal and Blake Foster, the Northeast Portland Italian American-inspired space is already boasting waits for its walk-in-only seating—even on a sleepy Wednesday. While decidedly East Coast red sauce in its overall approach, Gabbiano’s menu could please everyone from a picky kid to a picky traditionalist to a picky gourmand.
Everybody is talking about the mozzarella cups ($10), which sell out early each night. Breaded and fried cheese is served as a molded shot glass filled with tangy marinara. It’s more than a gimmick, though—they’re actually terrific. Go full ‘90s revival and order a limoncello drop ($12), a far more interesting twist on the sugary original, with housemade saffron limoncello and roasted lemon vodka.
The classics are also dialed in. For instance, the massive chicken Parmesan ($20) is a monolith of juicy brined breast breaded and fried to golden perfection, then topped with marinara and ample mozzarella. It’s even juicy the next day when reheated in the oven and turned into a sandwich. There’s no spaghetti on the menu, but there is chitarra ($14), a thicker and slightly softer version of the noodle that comes with marinara and Parmesan. Add the meatballs for $7; they’re a pork-and-beef blend with just the right amount of breadcrumbs-to-fat ratio for a dense, succulent bite.
A Caesar ($12) was standard issue but done well—oh so much anchovy on a bed of crisp gem lettuce, and the fry on an order of calamari ($14) was appropriately light in order to give the squid the spotlight. Pro tip: Ask for a ramekin of red sauce for dipping, because the aioli was just a bit too rich and one note.
There’s also a nod, here and there, to Pacific Northwest ingredients. The Girlfriend Pasta ($25) comes with a heaping helping of Dungeness crab atop squid ink tagliatelle that is buttery on the front end followed by a substantial kick from the Calabrian chile. There’s also some mint in the mix, and more herbs and acid would have been a welcome way to make the dish a touch more complex.
Gabbiano’s joins an already impressive clique of food and drink on this small stretch of Northeast 30th Avenue, including Expatriate and Dame. I’m glad to see it’s become an instant member of that club.
EAT: Gabbiano’s, 5411 NE 30th Ave., 503-719-4373, gabbianospdx.com. 4-10 pm Wednesday-Sunday.