As MagoGuide’s readership knows or is (more accurately) quite sick of hearing, we find it very difficult to review Italian restaurants outside of Italy. But that problem pales in comparison to reviewing Roman cuisine outside of the Eternal City. My culinary awakening can be dated to my father’s 1962 sabbatical in Rome, and I have been back to the Caput Mundi many times since that amazing year. Sweet Patti Ann and I moved to Rome at the turn of the century for “a few months” and lived there for over three years before we moved on to Sicily where we hung out for six months every year for a decade (and just so you know, I will not eat in a Sicilian restaurant outside of Trinacria, much less review one). In fact, Patti and I developed the idea for MagoGuide as we ate our way through Rome’s best trattorias in the days when Italian was still the dominant language in the Centro Storico.
So Team Mago was not in too big a hurry to review Ava Gene’s “Roman Inspired Cuisine” (per their website), in spite of its obvious popularity with the dining public and despite its accolades in the national foodie media. Indeed, when you peruse Ava Gene’s menu, it clearly derives from the historical Roman taverna/trattoria/osteria, culinary tradition. This is ingredient-driven cuisine with no discernible modernist flourishes. The menu follows the flow of a meal in a Roman trat, three courses and dessert, as well as giving a nod to the practice of eating a specific dish each night of the week for the better part of one’s lifetime. And, perhaps best of all, Ava Gene’s also owns Roman Candle, the bakery next door that produces very good, though not quite authentic, pizza bianca and rossa.
After walking by Ava Gene’s outside seating about five hundred times while shamelessly ogling the patrons’ plates, however, I decided that I was depriving myself of chef/owner Joshua McFadden’s renowned vegetable-prominent cuisine for understandable but ultimately pretty stupid reasons. I am glad that I did. Chef McFadden is the real deal. He and his partners have built and run a very good restaurant, but well over fifty percent of the menu cannot in any sense be called Roman inspired.
Di seguito, con tutto il rispetto per lo chef McFadden sono i miei motivi per questa affermazione:
Reason one: Where is the bubero?
A real Roman trat has to have an irascible owner who decides with a long silence and serious dollop of stink eye whether you get to eat at his place or not, based on some universal Roman criteria that stranieri will simply never be privy to. If you make it through the bubero encounter, then his semi-terrorized staff can be counted on to tell you what you can and cannot eat, in what order, and with what color of wine. If you want things differently, or even imagine a bit of substitution, the bubero will return and inform you, for example, that “a vegetable is not a secundo unless you order some meat or fish with it, and no you cannot split a plate of pasta, look I need this table for hungry people so just leave if you don’t like my food”, etc.
Not so Ava Genes’s. The wait staff is Portland friendly and seemingly genuinely excited about enabling your ingestion of chef McFadden’s food. The hostess works as hard with walk-ins as with reservations and lets diners choose where to sit, if there is room in this often packed establishment. The wait staff is every bit as knowledgable as they are personable. Heather, for example, was possessed of memorized sommelier-level tasting notes for each and every wine by the glass as well as prescient in alerting us to the dwindling supply of spare ribs in the kitchen (she secured the last available order for TeamMago).
My only service quibble is with the wine and food delivery system, which was a bit difficult to discern, but seemed to involve a trio composed of hostess, wait staff, and runner. I am all in favor of food arriving when it is ready to eat, but several of the dishes seem to have lingered at the pass for non-obvious reasons and the drinkage was out of synch with the plated arrivals.
Mago Tip: You should go early or late on weekdays or secure an outside table (the best are the deuces on SE 34th) to avoid a packed dining space and a wall of deafening, buzz killing sound supplied by the patrons and the music system.
Reason two: Only foreign restaurants in Rome spend this kind of money on decor.
Ava Gene’s is rather fancy for Portland, but if it were in Rome the street outside would be three deep in illegally parked Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Mazerattis, since only the glitterati would eat at an outpost of some U.S. celebrity chef’s empire. A Roman trattoria has tables jammed in cheek by jowl on top of a stained and chipped tile floor. The antique marble sink, vaulted ceiling, and other luxe accoutrements for Ava Gene’s bathroom would send your typical bubero into paroxysms of disbelief.
The food in a great Roman eatery is cooked (often by illegal immigrants) in a hot and dangerous postage stamp-sized kitchen that makes its utilitarian dining space look like the Taj Mahal by comparison. Ava Gene’s has a great looking chef’s counter that TeamMago has yet to sit at, but our object all sublime, we shall achieve in time. However, I can just hear the uber bubero who used to reign supreme at Trattoria da Enzo gesticulating madly while inquiring of no one in particular, “just stay home and watch your wife cook if that’s what you want, I need the room for real customers!”
Reason three: There are (usually) just two kinds of wine at a basic Roman trattoria, red and white. Ava Gene’s has a few more choices than that.
Although one of my bubero faves had this endearing habit:
- “Do you want water or wine?”
- “Just wine please.”
- “You have to have both”
- “In that case we’ll have tap water.”
- “The tap doesn’t work, you have to buy a bottle. Do you want still or sparkling?”
- “There is only sparkling. Do you want red or white wine?”
- “White please.”
- “There is only red.”
I sat through this routine for three freakin’ years and it was always the same. I went back several years later and it was still the same. The last time I visited his eatery, the bubero had joined the grumpy old men’s section of the choir invisible and his amazing trat had been turned into a mozzarella bar. Brutal, dude, brutal.
Ava Gene’s has sixteen high quality wines by the glass and an award winning wine list dedicated to all regions of Italy. If you go to a higher end establishment in Rome, however, its wine list will lean heavily towards Lazio, which gets pretty short shrift in Ava Gene’s Dionysian corpus. This IOHO is a pretty big lapse for folks with significant expertise in Italian wines. Neither of the Lazio reds on the list contain the Cesanese del Piglio varietal, a grape that dates to antiquity so it evolved along with Roman cuisine. More recently Cesanese has been championed by Italian porn star Savanna Samson whose wine received a 91 point rating from Robert Parker. From Pliny to porn stars, red wine from Lazio is found in the better class of Roman trattorias.
More down to earth, Lazio produces Frascati, the oft deplored and truly ubiquitous Italo-plonk that Romans guzzle by the liter at most osterias in the city. It is hard to think of Roman inspired cuisine without at least a nod to Frascati, and these days with a little searching you can find very potable versions of a varietal blend that is even older than Cesanese, such as Frascati Superiore 2013 Poggio Verde Pallavicini. Unfortunately, Frascati is AWOL from Ava Gene’s cellar. Nevertheless, there is plenty to like on Ava Gene’s wine list from Barbaresco by the glass to a large selection of “orange” wines, another nod to antiquity.
Reason four: Menu, what’s that? Santa Madonna mia, you call this pasta? Where is the fifth quarter?
No real Roman eatery has a menu, period. Oh they may produce a written list of dishes for tourists, but Romans know that the waiter tells you what is on for the night, and then the bubero tells you which of those dishes you can actually eat and in what order.
On our most recent visit to Ava Gene’s, the list of pastas contained only one that could be considered Roman inspired, spaghetti amatriciana (more on this dish below). But compared to the pasta, the absence of offal is damning. I do not consider grilled chicken livers, which I love by the way, representative of Rome’s millennia-long love affair with the fifth quarter. Where is the tripe, lamb’s intestines (pajata), brains, pluck (coratella), sweetbreads, lamb’s head, or oxtail?
Note to chef McFadden: If Aaron Barnett can make tripe, kidneys, and stuffed pigs feet staples at St. Jack, could you at least give rigatoni con pajata d’abbacchio a shot and see if it sells? If your other customers turn out to be Philistines, then Team Mago will take every bit that you cannot sell off your hands at a reasonable profit to your restaurant.
But how does the food taste?
OK so it’s not authentic Roman cuisine and/or nobody else in Portland could give a damn. Fair enough. The important thing is how does Ava Gene’s food taste? Glad you asked. Herewith our take on the dishes Team Mago has sampled to date:
Fried calamari, purple broccoli, leeks, pepperoncini, Calabrian maionese: Unless you go to a Japanese restaurant in Rome, you are unlikely to find fried squid like this and it is unlikely to be anywhere near as good. Since even Ava Gene’s well-schooled staff refer to this batter as “tempura,” I pretty much rest my case. Roman restaurants hit their calamari with the merest dusting of flour before frying it. Ava Gene’s version, while not anywhere near authentic, is damn good. In this rendition, the purple broccoli and fried pickley bits really elevated the dish far above the Portland norm. The Calabrian mayonnaise rocked–although I would be willing to bet you would search long and hard to find fried calamari paired with any type of mayo in Calabria.
Fried calamari, snap peas, lemon maionese: If you have not figured it out, TeamMago is crazy for fried squid. I really liked the fried pea pods, but they proved a bit stringy, pointing to a lack of attention to prep detail.
Gnocco fritto, prosciutto, parmigiano, chiles, honey: delicious large and puffy pillows of salty-sweet dough served with superior swineage, and drizzled with a sticky sweet/hot honey and chiles amalgam that melds beautifully with aged grated parma. This is an excellent example of an updated Emilia-Romana classic. That’s Romana, not Roman, by the way.
Bread with sheep cheese, ramp agrodolce, pine nuts, currants: a great platform for pickled ramps. If I had tasted it blind, I would have placed the influence east of Italy in Greece or even the historical Levant.
Bread with lovage butter, porcini, lemon: This dish is Roman inspired. I can easily imagine it served in ancient Rome, since lovage is a major ingredient in the Apicius corpus, the bread itself is a timeless casereccio and porcini were certainly available in the city’s ancient markets. The only fly in the ointment is the butter, which ancient Romans despised as Celtic barbarian food and their descendants usually opt for olive oil in their recipes too. It makes me wonder why chef McFadden chose butter rather than high end extra virgin olive oil. Mouth feel maybe? In any event the raw, fairly thick slices of porcini with a squeeze of lemon absolutely made this dish.
Calais flint corn polenta: decent cornmeal mush that originates from farther up the boot. It could have used more salt and maybe a little more richness in the form of parma and marscapone. Instead of serving polenta as a humble side, however, how about some gnocchi a al Romana (in this case Romana does mean Rome, duh)?
“Misticanza” sautéed greens, garlic, olives, chile: flat out killer greens, redolent of olive oil and garlic with a nice spike of heat. Whoever made the misticanza is certainly capable of cicoria ripassata in padella (hint).
Spaccatelli pasta, lamb and pork ragu, pea shoots, green garlic: I was caught out by the use of a white ragu in this dish, especially since the lamb and pork cry out for tomatoes to blend a bit of acidity with their aggressive fat. The pea shoots added a nice crunch but seemed rather superfluous. Also the pasta texture made me think that it sat just a tad too long at the pass.
Spaghetti all’amatriciana: You could definitely serve this dish in Rome and get away with it. First of all, the bespoke milled, extruded, rolled, and cut spaghetti was perfectly cooked and disposed of excellent flavor. The sauce was old school and superb. I particularly loved the prominent but not overwhelming heat, which even many Roman trattorias avoid to their detriment. I could hear my inner bubero working himself up to conniptions about the use of spaghetti vice bucatini and the presence of red onions, but I told him to shut up and let me eat this excellent pasta dish. The one thing I really wanted was a slice or two of the bread that underpinned the lovage butter treatment to employ in fare la scarpetta fashion on the sauce remaining on the plate, so I licked the damn thing clean instead.
Pork ribs, salmoriglio, n’duja, lemon: pork ribs done this way usually hail from Tuscany, but salmoriglio sauce of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and oregano is Sicilian and generally confined to fish preparations only. The ribs themselves were perfectly cooked with a little chew complemented by a spicy mouthfeel from the Calabrian nduja that clashed oh so nicely with the citrusy sauce. Heather’s heroic intervention early in our meal to secure the ribs may have caused them to overstay their welcome at the pass, but so be it, they were worth it.
Pana cotta: the real thang, and while probably of Piedmontese origin, I have to admit that this relative new comer to Italian cuisine is all over Rome.
Bottom Line: It ain’t really Roman but I like it. Ava Gene’s is a great place to enjoy Italo-PNW inspired cuisine on Portland’s premier restaurant row while the Eternal City sorts out its current crisis driven by the twin scourges of ubiquitous government corruption and metastasizing mass tourism. And in Portland you can dine a fuori without an infinite number of unpleasant encounters with flower sellers and accordion players.