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Restaurant of the Week: A Cena

In Sellwood, Italian spot's rising again
by: KATIE HARTLEY, A Cena’s pork belly steak comes with a polenta and egg ravioli and a truffle topping.

The adored and romantic Assaggio never really recovered from the departure of founders Darryl and Sarah Joannides in 2005.

New owners tried to keep the vibe going, but they couldn't maintain the effortless cozy elegance that made the many-roomed Sellwood establishment such a favorite for nearly a decade.

Fresh blood has taken over the space, and though the name and the menu have changed dramatically, A Cena has brought Assaggio's groove back.

A Cena (pronounced a CHAY-na) also does Italian food, but it's a more gourmet version, both in conception and execution. While the food may be high-end, it's not at all stuffy. The service is professional and casual, a winning combination that many more high-profile restaurants would be wise to emulate.

An appetizer of prosciutto-wrapped figs on a rosemary skewer over a vanilla-imbued sauce may seem familiar if you've eaten at Olea in the past few years.

In fact, A Cena's chef, Scott Shampine, used to cook in that Pearl District kitchen, and diners with good memories will find much similar here - even down to the serving dishes.

The seasonally changing menu now is full of hearty, earthy, slow-braised dishes, which successfully straddle the line between comforting and creative. Gnocchi made unusually with white beans lie under a rich rosemary and orange lamb stew.

Espresso-braised oxtail covers 'little ears' pasta, and squash-stuffed noodles get the expected sage and brown butter sauce but are differentiated with the addition of tangerine and crushed amaretto cookies.

Among the ambitious meat dishes, a house-cured pork belly steak was incredibly crispy and creamy, its meaty flavor tweaked with hazelnuts, bitter grilled rapini and the sweetness of truffle honey.

A starter bisque of cauliflower and shellfish makes surprising magic with the two disparate ingredients. It's the kind of dish that makes conversation.

Make your Valentine's reservations now.

- Audrey Van Buskirk

7742 S.E. 13th Ave., 503-206-3291, acenapdx.com, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, $10-$28