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Spot dabbles in little bit of everything

Tribune/Food
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Mercato’s wide-open modern space has the size and layout to accommodate the restaurant’s many missions.

Among the decisions a would-be restaurateur must make is to be a specialist or a dilettante. Those places that choose to just do one thing have the advantage of a built-in audience of people who love waffles or pizza or biscuits or whatever.

If they do that one thing well, they'll thrive (I've still been unable to try Pine State Biscuits, 3640 S.E. Belmont St., since there's always a crowd blocking the door).

Other restaurants take the opposite tack, offering a panoply of options so nearly every possible hunger can be addressed. The recently open Mercato (904 N.W. Couch St., 503-219-9966, www.mercatopdx.com) is one of those places.

It's a coffee bar, a gelateria, a take-and-bake outlet, a deli, a pizza place, a panini purveyor, a wine bar, a pasta palace and an Italian eatery. I'm sure I'm forgetting something.

That may sound confusing. The good news is that the restaurant has a large space and the layout lends itself to contrary purposes. The deli case, coffee bar and gelato are right by the entrance (kitty-corner from the Pearl Bakery); you can order to-go meals and take-home dinners from there.

The interior of the dining room has a sleek, modern design with a wall of windows, tomato- and orange-colored molded plastic chairs or similarly colored squishy round ottomans.

The open kitchen features a glass-tiled pizza oven, and from here slides some of the best food. The dozen or so thin-crust Neapolitan-style pizzas are variations on the simple tomato and mozzarella theme with toppings like radicchio and gorgonzola; even the simple margherita pie is a tasty treat (and at $11 a well-priced dinner).

The grilled sandwiches, made with either Italian flatbread or the house focaccia, are compact treasure troves of flavor. I love the way the prosciutto, cheese, oil, bread and arugula get melded together in the Stracchino sandwich (named for the cheese).

There are spendier entrees - $22 bony lamb chops with 20-year-old balsamic weren't worth the expense - but the classic lasagna at $14 makes the cut. You can also get an order to heat up at home.

The friendly service helps to allay any confusion over the menu and is accommodating to any sort of party; this is a rare Pearl restaurant where families with children eating off the small kids' menu sit alongside singles sipping Italian wines and snacking on antipasto, and pre-theater couples digging into the pappardelle with pork ragout.

That was my favorite of the pastas I tried (the garganelli al pesto was both oily and flavor-challenged), but with such a long menu there may be some winners I missed.

And I've just remembered Mercato serves breakfast frittatas, too. I'm going to stick with the pizza.

Mercato is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and naturally, it accepts reservations.

•••••

Restaurants that start out as just breakfast and lunch spots can have a hard time crossing over into the dinner territory.

The incredibly delicious Genies Cafe (1101 S.E. Division St.) serves Portland's best breakfasts with eye-opening cocktails to match, but its dinner service lasted only briefly.

Meatball and gravlax fans smartly line up for breakfast at the Swedish restaurant Broder (2508 S.E. Clinton St.), but the place has had a tough time making a go of it after lunch and recently put the evening meal on hiatus.

The Pearl District's Daily Cafe (902 N.W. 13th Ave.) is another place that's packed for breakfast and lunch, but its dinners have been quieter affairs. It remains one of this city's best-kept secrets for inventive, reasonably priced meals that you don't need to make a reservation for.

But you should make a reservation for the Daily's creative new dinner series, 'Cooks, Corks and Co-Conspirators: A Folly of Food, Wine and Art,' co-organized with Caplan Art Designs. It takes place the first Wednesday of every month and costs $60, which includes wine.

This month's version takes place at 6:30 p.m., May 7. The dinner will begin with lobster with avocado mousse, hearts of palm and papaya to complement artist Carol Sims' bold, botanical acrylic paintings.

For information, visit www.dailycafeinthepearl.com or call 503-706-8627.

•••••

It would be a full-time job to keep up with the Oregon wine industry -a fun job, but one that would necessitate a lot of spitting. Get a year's worth of knowledge in six hours at the fourth annual Portland Indie Wine Festival this weekend (3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 3-4).

A panel of judges selected 40 top wines in a blind tasting from small-scale Oregon producers (less than 2,000 cases a year), and 20 will be available for tasting each day. This is a rare opportunity to meet many of the state's vino-stars and buy what you like directly from the source - without having to deal with Highway 99 traffic or find a designated driver.

About 20 local restaurants and food sellers will offer tastes of their wares, everywhere from Typhoon to Country Cat, Biwa and Alma Chocolate, so you can sample how your new favorite pinot pairs with real food.

If you're interested in learning even more about the Oregon wine business, consider taking one of the seminars associated with the festival, Natural Winemaking in the Age of Technology or Terroir 101 (these cost $35 each and will be held at the Hotel Vintage Plaza Friday and Saturday).

The tastings will take place at Urban Wineworks (407 N.W. 16th Ave.), and tickets cost $60 per day or $100 for the whole weekend. To order tickets or find out more, visit www.indiewinefestival.com or call 503-595-0891.

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