Offbeat pastas light up menu
You don't have to spend a vacation in Italy's Piedmont region, home to such gastronomic gems as nebbiolo grapes and white truffles, to appreciate Alba Osteria's Piedmontese menu. But after eating your way down the restaurant's teasingly short list of handmade pastas, don't be surprised if you become possessed of a forceful desire to visit the land that spawned these exquisite recipes.
Numerous Portland restaurants cook up terrific pasta dishes, but they all seem to offer the same lineup of variously shaped noodles sauced with pesto, puttanesca and olive oil with garlic. Though satisfying, they send foodies straight to their own cookbook shelf, hungry to taste something new.
Now you can head instead to Alba Osteria & Enoteca in Hillsdale. Alba's trio of pastas, old recipes invented and honed in hilly northwestern Italy, will appear new and mercifully different to many diners, for they pop up only occasionally as specials at places such as Serratto and Giorgio's. Not one of them is made with tomato sauce.
It's difficult to crown a champion from among the three pastas Ñ all of which are simply tossed with extra virgin olive oil Ñ but honors might have to go to the most basic one: tangled egg noodles as slender as chives accented by parmigiano cheese, morels and porcini. Known as tajarin, this first course (the pastas are served as primi, i.e., first-course portions) stands out perhaps because egg noodles are underused locally. The wispy lightness of the strands comes as a delicious surprise, while the mushrooms contribute earthiness.
Maltagliate Ñ wide, flat noodles with torn edges Ñ mingle with firm asparagus nubs, bits of prosciutto and parmigiano. Agnollotti, which get their name from a resemblance to priests' caps, are tiny pasta packets plumped with a finely ground mixture of veal and pork. Be advised that the latter is flat-out addictive, so you may want to think twice before offering a bite to your companions.
Alba Osteria's entrees also veer from the cadre of usual suspects. When, for instance, was the last time finanziera was placed before you? It is a rich and silky mŽlange of sweetbreads (a defanged term for the gland and organ meat of calves), chicken livers and mushrooms. If you can conquer squeamishness, the velvety, dense texture of sweetbreads is quite palatable. Carne cruda, lightly seasoned raw ground beef of high quality, served as an antipasto also rewards adventurous gourmets.
Roasted duck breast, as tender as it comes, is served in rosy, half-inch slices with fingerling potatoes and too-few glazed carrots. Accompanied by a sweet reduction with morels, its aroma mimics that of a plate of pancakes with hot maple syrup.
Lovely ramps, wild onions with supercharged flavor, make a welcome cameo appearance in the porcini-dusted halibut plate. Other esoteric vegetables, including fava beans and Jerusalem artichokes made into fritters and served with leg of lamb, signal the restaurant's dedication to using uncommon, seasonal produce Ñ a very nice touch.
Though Alba only offers one salad, an understated mix of lettuces with pecorino Romano shards and tangy vinaigrette, a few vegetable side dishes underscore the fresh-local-and-unusual emphasis.
An element of the unexpected Ñ Piedmont in Hillsdale Ñ pervades Alba Osteria. It will be interesting to see what it brings to table down the road in colder, less bountiful seasons. For now, it makes a decent substitute for that Italian holiday you've been meaning to book.