When was the last time you tasted a dessert so vibrant, so shockingly alive, that it caused you to laugh out loud with sheer joy? Have you ever tried an appetizer so salty, sweet and oily that it warranted a burst of applause, as if it had just performed a magic trick? I was lucky enough to have both experiences at Tartuca, the sensational new Italian restaurant occupying the former Radar space on North Mississippi Avenue.
Before the chill of fall sets in, you may be drawn to Tartuca’s front and back patios, which are serene and casual—ideal settings for sharing a bottle of red wine and good discussion with friends. But the narrow brick interior, lined with local art, is where you’ll get dinner and a show: Chef Jamie Wilcox is running a bustling machine of an open kitchen, pumping out dishes that are at once iconically Italian and quintessentially Oregon.
“We have a really wonderful team, and we’re getting all our produce from local farms and farmers markets,” Wilcox says. “We’ve had a lot of freedom to source things the way we want to. I’m really excited about that.”
This includes taking advantage of the bounties of Sauvie Island and clipping bay leaves from neighbors’ home gardens.
“Everything’s super seasonal,” Wilcox adds, “so if you come in a month, things are probably going to be very different.”
So if, like me, you’ve been bemoaning Portland’s recent barrage of fried chicken, smashburgers, and soft serve, and craving some of that good ol’ Pacific Northwest farm-to-table elegance, it’s hiding in plain sight on Wilcox’s ever-changing menu.
Housemade radiatori with blistered sungold tomatoes and kale ($20) reads rich and spicy on the page, but actually comes off as incredibly refreshing on a 90-degree day. A gorgeous wooden bowl is swiped with a halo of ethereal Calabrian chile ricotta, which surrounds a swirly pile of springy, al dente nuggets of pasta topped with a mini-salad of spring onions and basil. Summer squash ($12) with sundried tomato pesto, pine nuts, and Castelvetrano olives, is roasty and bracingly salty. The tender sweetness of little gems in the Caesar ($12) contrasts with Parmesan frico bits that crunch like Royal Umami croutons.
The bucatini ($22) is an incredibly considerate and cozy dish—you could almost call it a vegetarian carbonara. Thick-sliced lobster mushrooms are meaty and perfectly cooked, whole sungold tomatoes are bursts of sunshine, and the bright-orange yolk pooled at the bottom of the bowl recalls Amy Adams trying her first poached egg in Julie & Julia: “It tastes like…cheese sauce. Yum.”
You’ll see most tables sharing pizzas, and Tartuca’s current, most-popular offerings are all bangers. The #2 ($16) with red tomato sauce, fresh yellow tomato hunks, purple basil, and cloves of confit garlic, has a defiant personality—there are so many layers of sweetness and sharpness that it would be rude to classify it as a mere margherita. The #6 ($20), with silky sheep’s milk cheese, pesto and zucchini, benefits the most from Tartuca bucking the sourdough pizza trend, which can often be distracting. Instead, this dough’s mild airiness allows subtler ingredients to shine, and its olive oil-brushed crust shimmers like a savory doughnut. The #4 ($21) is just about perfect, with spicy lamb sausage, softly sweet caramelized onions, tiny whole-roasted mushrooms, garlic oil, and Cypress Grove’s seminal party cheese Humboldt Fog. To feature that brielike goat cheese with its signature vegetable ash on top of a pizza whose bottom is all crispy char is a stroke of genius.
Desserts are also playful and compelling. The olive oil cake ($11) with macerated blueberries, Earl Grey gelato and mascarpone, is lighter and spongier than any other I’ve tasted, and the blackberry stracciatella gelato ($7) crunches with crackly threads of dark chocolate.
As for those dishes I mentioned at the beginning that prompted sheer joy and bravos? It all comes down to the peach. The burrata ($18) is what warranted applause and is possibly the best thing I’ve eaten all year. Served with a mildly grassy olive oil, corn, cucumbers, sliced red onion, and the luscious local fruit, it’s pure creamy heaven, particularly when scooped up with housemade focaccia ($6) that’s fluffy, oily and charred—everything a superlative appetizer could be.
The dish that elicited laughter was the corn cake ($11), served with half a roasted peach and a stratospheric lemon verbena gelato. Chef Wilcox seriously knows her way around a stone fruit, and who knows how long they’ll be on the menu. That’s the best thing about seasonal food, and perhaps why I felt the need to clap. Like a performance, it’s here and then gone, and it forces you to feel and remember. I can’t wait to make Tartuca a regular spot; I’m sure there will be many more memorable performances to come.
EAT: Tartuca, 3951 N Mississippi Ave., 503-477-8008, tartucapdx.com. 4-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday, 11:30 am-9 pm Sunday.