Downtown's O, Cielo! struggles to do double duty
In terms of straight numbers, there are loads of lunch choices for people who work downtown: everything from pierogi and sausage from a Polish cart to the pizza, pad thai and pasta at a variety of eateries below Southwest 10th Avenue.
But we all fall into routines and wind up patronizing the same burrito stands and sandwich shops week in, week out. Which is why any new cafe or trailer instantly piques the senses of west-enders yearning for something Ñ anything Ñ new.
In some cases, however, the courtship quickly turns sour.
The breezy, wisecracking charm and heavy Italian accent of Stefano Bruschi, who operates the new Italian deli O, Cielo! with his wife, Betty Schmidt, does much to promise authentic food. He is Roman, and the couple boast extensive restaurant experience in Italy and San Francisco. But so far, the fare at O, Cielo! ('Oh, heavens!' in Italian) does not evidence much culinary prowess.
Granted, O, Cielo! doesn't aspire to be a white linen restaurant or even a full-blown trattoria: It is constructed as a deli where patrons can pop in for a pastry and San Pellegrino to go, or sit down for a meal with wine. This setup contributes to the restaurant's disjointed aura, which begins with the random dŽcor and ends with slipshod food.
Few delis can do double duty as nightspots without undergoing some transformation. During lunch at O, Cielo!, orders are taken at the counter. At dinnertime, table service is offered, but there is no significant effort to turn the lights down low and crank up the ambience. Aqua walls, red-and-white checkered linoleum and fluorescent lights create a jagged setting that is neither airy nor cozy.
O, Cielo!'s menu and wine list are comparably limited and generally pricier than local pasta places of similar ilk. For dinner, the menu consists of a few salads, starters, pasta dishes and entrees, none of which is particularly exciting. About 15 respectable Italian wines are sold by the bottle, yet only a house red and white are available by the glass.
But uninspired interior design and narrow menus can be forgiven if the food is electric. That is not the case at O, Cielo!, where a skimpy roast turkey panino packs more spicy Dijon than a picnicking Frenchman, and pastas are served reheated rather than fresh.
Part of the fun of dining out is to witness clever presentation. So when a pan-fried turkey cutlet appears nestled next to browned potato wedges and half of a soggy fried onion Ñ all the color of acorns Ñ it's a disappointment. Leaden pasta Ñ a heap of cream and cheese Ñ likewise lacks any aesthetic (or gustatory) appeal.
Some dishes at O, Cielo!, such as the antipasto platter, spinach and ricotta Torta Rustica and spinach salad, are fine, but only fine. The best thing we tried was a simple but excellent ciambella (Italian pound cake).
Maybe O, Cielo! is just getting warmed up and Bruschi and Schmidt have better things in store for Portland. We hope so. If there are many delis like O, Cielo! in The Boot, Italians aren't eating as deliciously as we envision.