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Albas taste of Piedmont will draw diners into the hills

by: DENISE FARWELL, Chef-owner Kurt Spak’s tajarin pasta and beef carpaccio at Alba Osteria & Enoteca are enough to make one close-in city dweller brave the journey into Southwest Portland.

With a few exceptions (like trips to Costco or the Mount Scott swimming pool) I exist within a few miles' radius of Union Station.

But every once in a while, a spot will seduce me away from my tiny town. Alba Osteria and Enoteca (6440 S.W. Capitol Highway, 503-977-3045) is in the Hillsdale neighborhood of Southwest Portland, way outside my regular route.

Alba Osteria and Enoteca is worth the journey.

Many of Alba's dishes require an adventurous palate. Chef and owner Kurt Spak lived and cooked in northwestern Italy, in Piedmont, and that's the cuisine he prepares at his restaurant.

The menu, which changes seasonally, is split into antipasti (starters, between $6 and $11), primi (pasta, between $8 and $13) and secondi (entrees, between $20 and $26).

I haven't explored the entrees much because I tend to fill up on the starters and pasta. But this summer, I did have the flavor-packed, rich roasted sweetbreads and grilled chicken livers with mustard sauce, and it was tremendous. And recently I sampled a satisfying grilled culotte (tri-tip) steak with creamed lobster mushrooms.

Perfect pastas rule the menu

Alba's pastas are where I want to linger. Agnolotti is a kind of stuffed pasta, similar to ravioli, and is common in Piedmontese cooking. Thankfully, some version of it is always on the menu.

Alba does it particularly well. Once the agnolotti was filled with creamy fontina and tossed with leeks sautéed in butter. Another time agnolotti packed a protein punch with pork, veal and spinach.

Tajarin, another Piedmontese pasta, is made with egg yolks and cut superthin. At Alba, you can order it plain with just butter and sage; often it's also available with a meat sauce (like lamb sausage ragout).

I prefer the simple version of tajarin, probably because the starters I order are intensely flavored and my taste buds need a break.

Chef Spak likes to use bitter chicories in his more complicated salads, which can be hard to stomach in large doses.

In one summer salad, sharp, peppery Catalogna chicory was tossed with shrimp, cucumber, anchovy and egg. I ate only about half the strong-tasting green so that I could taste the other ingredients. Recently Spak more successfully used crunchy punterelle, another bitter chicory, in a salad with anchovy, lemon and chopped egg.

Raw beef also is an Alba favorite. Recently I ordered perfect, paper-thin beef carpaccio minimally dressed with lemon, garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano. Chopped raw beef (a kind of steak tartare) with similar dressing also is excellent. All either dish needs is a little salt and pepper.

Alba's basic salad of lettuces with herb vinaigrette is the only substantial disappointment on the menu. I've ordered it twice, and both times the vinaigrette was almost flavorless - the oil's bland, and I tasted no vinegar.

The second time I ordered it, the lettuce had not been dried well enough before it was dressed, adding to the lackluster flavor.

I can't comment on the desserts because I've never had room. But I do recommend the cheese plate.

My most wine-savvy friends are impressed by Alba's Italian list, and I've loved every wine I've tried there - though I've avoided the 15 or so that cost more than $100.

Meat sure gets the treatment

Terra-cotta walls and lots of windows give it warmth. It's a long space broken into three sections: the wine bar, the dining room next to the kitchen and another dining room that feels added on.

Normally it's a nice, romantic spot, but on my last visit, a friend and I had an odd experience. Ten minutes into our meal, an incredibly loud banging noise came from the kitchen.

Everyone turned and looked. It lasted a minute, then stopped. Started again, then stopped. This went on for about 15 minutes. It was almost too loud to speak over so when the banging stopped suddenly, we found ourselves shouting.

It was like a Monty Python sketch. I began to get terrible giggles (the wine helped) when the pounding finally stopped for good. We asked our waiter about it and, as I'd guessed, they were tenderizing meat.

I worry a little about Alba because it doesn't seem to be as busy as a place this good should be.

If Italian food means more than spaghetti and meatballs to you, try Alba. Even for me, it's worth the trip to Hillsdale.

Alba Osteria opens for dinner at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Visit www.albaosteria.com for information.