Telephone: (503) 241-1133
Hours of operation: Open daily from 11AM to 10PM
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Rostra rating: 3
Team Mago does not frequent many Italian restaurants outside of Italy. The problem is that we are snobs. After spending years in Rome and Sicily, there is just too much of a disconnect between the flavors, ambience, and culture of Italian regional cuisine and what the locals refer to as “international Italian cuisine.” The problem is particularly acute in the U.S. where protein heavy Italo-American cuisine diverged early on from the cucina di povera that first generation immigrants brought to the U.S. from Italy’s mezzogiorno in the early 20th century.
So it was with seriously adjusted expectations that MagoGuide recently visited Grassa in downtown Portland due to an empty larder cum serious pasta jones. We were surprised to discover that this restaurant is a great place to grab a plate of pasta and a glass of red wine.
The décor is standard Portland industrial, but the space is bright and welcoming with a bar facing the open and bifurcated kitchen layout wherein pasta is made up front and the line is partially visible through an open storage partition.
The audio twist is delivered by a collection of vinyl that the Grassa website describes (accurately) as “stoner-rock”.
Things got off to a very good start with the barrel zinfandel courtesy of Tierra Divina. It was a powerful young zin with grapey forward fruit and a big almost sloppy finish, served appropriately in water glasses (the water was served in beer glasses) like a scene right out of Boardwalk Empire. It seemed kind of spendy at twenty-two bucks for 460 ml, but hey you gotta earn and almost all restaurants make their numbers on booze, especially given Portland’s enlightened liquor license price of $500 per annum.
Unfortunately, the more-than-decent plonk did not make up for the badly executed frito misto of calamari, fennel, lemon, and chilies that we chose as an appie. The dish was rather bizarrely flawed. The squid was very fresh and had great flavor, but it was undercooked to a limp and insipid texture. The flavor profile was actually quite good, a melding of sea, acid, and heat that kept us exploring all the other flaws that basically destroyed the effort in its entirety.
The squid and lemons were undercooked while the peppers were on point and the very thinly shaved fennel dark and almost burned. The squid was over breaded, especially given its too brief association with the fryolater, making the whole dish more a saute than a frito. Finally, the accompanying tartar sauce was just fine, but the absolutely wrong choice for the dish. Tartar sauce is for crispy fried food, and this just wasn’t. Update: the frito misto was much better at Volume 2 (see below) with all the components cooked to a similar consistency. The squid in particular was a major improvement. The too-thick-by-half Tartar sauce was still there, however.
As an offshoot of Rick Gencarelli’s Lardo chain, Grassa appears to suffer from the same lack of attention to detail, especially in fryolater land, that is currently afflicting Lardo writ large. Our recent experience at the Lardo outpost adjacent to Grassa makes us wonder whether the dyspeptic fryolater operator is shared between the two establishments. At least the frito misto tasted kinda good, as opposed to the disastrous dirty fries we left virtually uneaten a few weeks ago.
The evening was saved by the arrival of our pasta. Squid ink tonnarelli with rock shrimp fra diavolo, spicy tomato sauce, jalapeno, garlic, and mint was not Italian, not even really Italo-American, but it was a great bowl of pasta. The tonnarelli was perfectly cooked to a real paisan’s al dente. Then came very nice layers of heat, crunch (from a Palermitan dose of toasted bread crumbs), a rich mouth feel from a garlicky white sauce, and a refreshing burst of mint.
This dish owes its culinary heritage to Sicily, Greece, and North Africa, but each national nuance is amped with Pacific Northwest panache, to include the excellent and correctly cooked rock shrimp that added just enough sweetness to elevate the dish.
The Sunday pork ragu came the closest to being an authentic Neopolitan dish. The tomatoes married nicely with the pork shoulder in what was obviously a long and well executed braise. We both thought that the rigatoni needed more grated cheese, perhaps served on the side as opposed to fired with the dish, but that is a mere quibble. The real problem was the pasta itself. It was just fine, almost as good as high quality factory rigatoni. But that is the point. Almost no real trattoria in Italy bothers with bespoke rigatoni because it ain’t worth it. Hard semolina pasta needs to be factory made and making it on site is only going to drive up your cost of food for little or no culinary gain. Grassa rigatoni is also small for the overall breed and the result is more like large penne than what our Pittsburg friends call “sewer pipes.”
Midway through our pasta, Team Mago decided to sample the House Red supplied by Cooper’s Hall. That proved somewhat difficult. It is not clear to diners (or the staff as it turned out) just how one tops up an order at Grassa. The initial order and delivery sequence is well honed; when you walk in you order at the host station using a wall o’ menu, and then a server brings your order based on a numbered plaque you carry to your seating area. But when it comes time to get more of anything, the server is usually gone and the order station often unoccupied. I was about to camp out at the empty order station when our server showed up with our pasta and I was able to order more wine, which never showed up. The manager walked by about ten minutes after we ran out of zin and I was able to order the wine, which he brought personally and quickly. When it came time to leave, however, we had not received a bill for the second wine so we went back to the order station now manned by the same manager and when he asked if our server had ever given us a bill and we replied that she had not, he told us that the wine was on him. Excellent move, but another symptom of Lardo’s current shortcomings in the realm of details and consistency.
The house red, by the way, was good but not nearly as good as the zin. It was also a very forceful and forward young wine, but the dominant aspect was a gamey, leathery, barnyardy mid-palate that did not suit the food we ordered as well as the zin.
Grassa could do for bespoke pasta what Lardo once did for high-end sandwiches, but with Lardo showing the problems of culinary over-exposure will Grassa go the same way? The jury is still out and MagoGuide will be back in the not too distant future to see if Grassa can escape Lardo’s fate.
Mago tips: Eat at Volume 2, Grassa on 23rd, after a couple pints at Lompoc on Miser Monday. Pay the extra ducats for the zin and grin. Do not under any circumstances order the carbonara, it’s a sin.
Grassa on 23rd – Volume 2
Telephone: (503) 241-1133
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 3
Team Mago invaded Grassa’s new NW 23 Ave. location some three days after it opened. Our foray revealed that Grassa’s management team was hard at work trying to avoid most of the slips we encountered at the downtown location (perhaps they read our review).
First off, the space is much nicer. Buying the hulk of a failed Pastini Pastaria outlet smacked of strategic brilliance: 1) it made the build-out easier since the Grassa team started with a pasta-focused kitchen from the get-go, 2) it flung Grassa into the epicenter of the gastroquake currently shaking the boundary of Slabtown and the Alphabet Districts, and 3) Grassa scored a lot more covers per square foot than the downtown location.
Volume 2 is noticeably nicer inside than the original with a lot of individual tables, elevated communal tables, and a chef’s counter that is much better than the original, providing an unobstructed view of the line cooks from the unusual vantage of the right flank of the line.
The service lapses we noted at the original have been corrected at Volume 2. Re-orders for drinks are efficiently and rapidly dealt with, while being able to question the sous chef and his underlings directly is a big improvement. The stoner rock remains at cranium melting volume, but the higher ceilings and sound dampening effects of a space twice the size of Volume 1 make it less difficult for aging boomers to interrogate the millennials manning the line.
Sweet pea stuffed agnolotti with lamb bolognese, pecorino, and pea shoots: This was the best preparation yet, with agnolotti masquerading as Addephagia’s love pillows encasing a primavera-forward pea puree enlivened by a judicious spike of mint. The sweet, rich lamb sauce was succulent and salty as well as the perfect foil for a side dish of crunchy sweet turnips and greens garnished with chopped almonds and garlic (also the best side I have had at Grassa).
Rigatoni with italian sausage, cream, white wine, flowering greens, pecorino, and breadcrumbs: My fears that the cream would be laid on with too heavy a hand were blessedly allayed on the first bite. This dish’s designer calibrated to perfection the mouthfeel differential between the perfectly al dente rigatoni, slightly acidic wine, luscious cream neatly diluted yet enhanced with pork fat, and soapy/sheepy cheese. Next add the refreshing bitterness of the flowering greens modulated with crunchy bread crumbs and you have a dish that can do real damage to Team Mago’s pasta loving trio. I think we would still be eating it if we had not goaded each other into leaving before we became truly addicted. As we say in Montucky “that’s some good shit Maynard!!”
And now for the bad news.
Carbonara with bucatini, pork belly (aka, pancetta), fried egg, pecorino, and peas: I knew that I was going to take one for the team just from reading the list of abominations foisted on the noble carbonara by Rick Gencarelli. A Sicilian would call this dish a provocation, the Roman reaction would be extremely obscene. Bucatini should be served with amatriciana sauce, but the dish would have had a slightly better chance of survival if the pasta had not been overcooked, adding a fundamental sogginess from which the preparation never recovered. Pancetta is a fine substitute for guancialle, and as the sous chef pointed out, pancetta is much more in line with Grassa’s cost of food. But serving a fried egg on top of pasta and calling it carbonara is a sin for which a special place is reserved in la cucina di inferno. And then there were peas and bread crumbs added to the mix in some desperate effort to atone for the earlier culinary sins described above, but which served to only magnify the flaws of the worst insult to carbonara since Jamie Oliver’s monstrous addition of meatballs in his version. About the only transgression that Grassa’s carbonara does not commit is the addition of heavy cream, so thank Addephagia for little things I guess.
Spaghetti “Aglio-Olio” with garlic, chili flake, olive oil, grana, breadcrumbs: another sacrifice for the good of the gastroshpere. Look, agilo-olio means just that, period. Chili flakes, while allowable, are definitely a modern interpolation. The rest of those ingredients are total freakin’ abominations for this dish. Grassa is not unique in refusing to leave well enough alone with this most basic and essential of pasta dishes. Even the beloved Marcella Hazan junked up her agilo-olio with versions that included raw garlic, tomatoes, and basil (as well as suggesting spaghettini for the pasta). But Grassa added insult to injury by over cooking the spaghetti lending a depressing sogginess to the dish, which should normally be redolent of fruity olive oil and not recycled pasta water. Like carbonara, these deceptively simple pasta dishes have an immune response to Pacific North West panache and creativity. Chef Rick could do us all a favor by simply removing them from the menu.
Let’s end on a happy note.
Squid Ink chittara with clams, green garlic puree, hazel nut piccada, white wine, fennel, pancetta sofritto, Calabrian chili: after two rants concerning excummication-worthy pasta crimes, I have to confess to the sin of heresy concerning Chef Gencarelli’s take on pasta a la vongole. This is a great neo-Italian-bordering-on-international pasta dish. Its got all the major food groups, lotsa mildly sweet garlic, wonderful crunchy texture notes supplied by Oregon’s own filberts, tart winey notes softened by a mild hint of liquorish from the fennel, heat, and (wait for it) Pig Candy. The pasta itself is some of the best made on the premises and, at least on this occasion, perfectly prepared to an authentic al dente.