Not too plain, not too fancy
Italian food in the United States used to mean spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and Chianti. Now it also encompasses boutique extra-virgin olive oil, risotto with truffles and artisanal ciabatta.
Populist Italian restaurants hit somewhere in the middle, dishing up cheese-rific baked ziti alongside angel hair and prawns in an elegant, garlicky white wine sauce.
Here are three of Portland's most popular, safe Italian eateries.
Old Spaghetti Factory
If you're something of a food snob, you've probably never been to an Old Spaghetti Factory, except in a nightmare where you were surrounded by squalling babies and gauche relatives talking with their mouths full of chicken cacciatore. But a curious thing happens when you walk through the grand doors of an OSF: Eyeing the ornate chandeliers and mirrors and overstuffed wingback chairs, you realize that this might not be so bad.
The chain's name gives the impression of a cafeteria-style dining experience; instead the dŽcor is stately and comfortable. The food is not going to convert Fratelli and Serratto regulars, but what counts here is the value-added meal: Every entree ($5.95 to $9.35) includes green salad or minestrone; a loaf of sourdough; coffee, tea or milk; and spumoni or vanilla ice cream to finish. Simple spaghetti with sharp mizithra cheese appeals to finicky kids and discriminating adults, and the rich beef-and-pork lasagna is as pleasing as the stuff served in many a household. And the service couldn't be nicer.
0715 S.W. Bancroft St., 503-222-5375; 12725 S.E. 93rd Ave., 503-653-7949; 18925 N.W. Tanasbourne Dr., 503-617-7614
Little Italy's Cucina
The ersatz shuttered windows climbing up one wall, replete with little European clothes hanging from a miniclothesline, and the faux vines crisscrossing the ceiling could make you believe you were in the Venetian in Las Vegas. But the over-the-top design of this tiny restaurant manages to be more charming than tiresome. It evokes New York's Little Italy of yesteryear, before the hawkers stood out front desperately trying to lure unwitting customers into their sad, empty trattorias.
The service is attentive and genuine, and the food is quite satisfying Ñ a Caprese salad with toothsome focaccia as good as any. Pasta dishes are on the hearty side of Italian fare. Pasta e fagioli needlessly comprises three types of noodles (a bit overcooked) but is redeemed by the inclusion of pancetta, navy beans and roasted garlic in a sweet tomato sauce.
The desserts are homemade, so don't miss the chocolate-chip studded cannoli.
2601 S.E. Clinton St., 503-239-4306
The new Northwest Pastini location fairly replicates the crowd-pleasing original on Northeast Broadway. A south-to-north range of pasta favorites is served up swiftly and genially in tasteful, light-filled environs at easy-to-stomach prices.
Most dishes are rib-sticking with a gourmet twist: Rigatoni in cream sauce is revved by roasted butternut squash, wild mushrooms and fresh spinach; cannelloni are stuffed with shrimp, scallops and fish in a bŽchamel sauce, then baked in tomato-basil sauce. Thoughtful touches include a bargain kids' menu and cremosas, Italian sodas spiked with cream.
1506 N.W 23rd Ave., 503-595-1205; 1426 N.E. Broadway, 503-288-4300