One recent warm summer nights eve, we decided to have Italian food. The place I used to love best in town has closed, so we tried Piazza Italia, in Portland’s Pearl District. We had to park a few blocks away and, as it was late summer, it was already dark by eight. The warmth and busy energy as you enter this bustling and aromatic restaurant told us we had come to the right place. I’d left my camera in the car, as our reservations were for an outside table, and I’d forgotten how early dusk would fall. I decided to hurry back and retrieve it, however and when I returned, they’d managed to find us a spot inside, on a busy-packed Friday night, no less! I was very excited as the surroundings are pretty interesting – plus, since we were dining indoors after all, I’d be able to take some photos. I still, despite having done this for nearly a year, am a bit self-conscious when I have my camera out in public. I never know if it’s best to ask first if I can take photos, or just assume it’s okay unless told otherwise. Asking permission seems to generate a pause, as though suddenly they only then notice the camera and the concept of consent enters the picture (pun intended,yes!). In this particular circumstance, I opted to just go ahead merrily with my plans and try to be as inconspicuous as I could be … despite being seated at one of the smaller tables in the place, so that I had to actually leave my chair and step back away from the table in order to get the best angle. Sigh.
There’s a shelving unit framed by what looks like a gigantic round wooden wine-barrel top against the wall - I’m not certain if wine casks are really that big, but it was pretty neat. Wine bottles used at the tables are on display – we had an (aforementioned) small table in the corner and every now and then someone would stop nearby to grab one of the bottles off a shelf nearby us, just as if you were in someone’s home visiting or at a big party and they were pulling out the wine. I think the fact that the various servers running around all spoke to each other in Italian added to that homey impression.
We started off with bread, accompanied not by butter but by olive oil and vinegar – my favorite and one of the informal indicators I use to tell me if this is going to be a good Italian place or not – no scientific basis behind this, you understand, just my own personal barometer. It’s somewhat like the situation with the tortilla chips in Mexican places – you can nearly always gauge the quality of the food by the foreshadowing quality of the chips and salsa they bring. The fact that there was nary a breadstick covered with that awful garlic salt in sight was my second clue… pet peeve of mine, I loathe those doughy breadsticks. Especially when they charge you for it? I mean, bread should be just there, free, like tortilla chips or water.
The risk you take, however, with such yumminess as the bread is that by the time your entree arrives, you’re stuffed. We decided to “take the risk!” … and ordered an antipasto plate as well.
I was on a double mission here – the blog of course, since I have to somehow justify why as a red-blooded Italian I wasn’t home brewing up some marinara of my own – but secondarily I feel the need to encourage my little guy to try new foods when I can. And while it’s true that I can make what is possibly (to my children) the world’s best spaghetti sauce and lasagna … I had to take the risk of being exposed as merely passable in the cooking department. So for tonight’s lesson we had cheeses he’d never tried, green olives (which I enthusiastically ate, despite there being pits and despite my own borderline dislike for them) and various meats. Okay, green olives – meh, I can take or leave (mostly leave, sorry) those – but the rest was delicious – we broke off small pieces and nibbled to make them last, wrapped them around bread pieces and cheese and dipped them into the olive oil … that could have been dinner right there!
However, we were there on a pasta hunt, and we were not disappointed. My son ordered the rigatoni bolognese and I had the frutti di mare.
I’ve mentioned my son is a somewhat finicky eater? Well, not so here – despite the bread and antipasto he ate most of his dinner and the few bites I was allowed were terrific. He even rejected more than one or two of my shrimp (his favorite) because he was so enthralled with his own dinner.
The sauce is one of the best I’ve had anywhere – they said it was just marinara on my dish, but it was really very good – not too tomatoey, and perfect with the seafood. One of the things I like about any dish with shellfish is the good excuse to play with your food (yet another reason bread is so wonderful) and eat with your hands!
Seriously, though, this frutti di mare was the special that night, I’m not certain if they always offer it, but I recommend it if you enjoy seafood. In the midst of the sauce and pasta are chunks of halibut, scallops, shrimp – absolutely wonderful.