First of all, let me just make note of the fact that Restaurant Roulette has made it through an entire year, so thanks to my original co-diners, who helped me discover that the group dining thing was a feasible concept, and to all the people who have joined in since then. RR has changed and evolved much since that first dinner with just the three of us sitting out on that really sunny patio at La Calaca Comelona, staring at their awful landscaping techniques. While co-diners were scarce during the holidays, and made me contemplate throwing in the towel, I’ve learned an important lesson from the experience, when numbers are dwindling, just keep advertising, advertising, advertising.

I’d also like to make mention of our three newest dinees, Mello and Ivan, that nice chemist couple from Hillsboro, and Adele, yet another San Francisco transplant, a semi-retired chef (what could be better than that?) with a lovely lilting UK accent.

Now, on to Assaggio ………

Okay, as usual, let me begin this review in my usual obscure way (and/or, probably the only way I ever begin a review.)

Where exactly did that saying come from? Why would people go to Hell in a handbasket, and/or the equally amusing but also confusing handcart? What is a handbasket? Is that what you dangle on your arm as you skip off to pick berries in your cheery frock? And what is a handcart, is that what you struggle through the Winco food aisles with? (okay, that’s A LOT like Hell.) Why would you go to Hell in these contraptions? Why wouldn’t you go to Hell in something like a red Hummer, or an old cream colored Yugo (and when’s the last time you saw one of those babies?) Wouldn’t those be more appropriate to Hell going? Sorry, but inquiring minds want to know.

Anyway, as you might have figured out by this time, this will not fall into the category of glowing reviews. Visiting Assaggio (Part 1) was much like when you bump into a dear old friend of yours, and they have totally hit the skids, they might be homeless, or mentally ill, or passing out scary religious pamplets door to door. You know it’s them, but you don’t want to believe they have come to this. Maybe you see them at the freeway off ramp with their waving sign, so humanitarian that you are, you do the noble thing, you pretend like you didn’t see them and speed off as soon as possible. (Of course this is how I handle all uncertain people, don’t you? Especially bill collectors.)

It’s really not hard to imagine the shock and the horror, were the original Assaggio owners (the Johannides, or something of that ilk), to stumble upon this review likening their former glorious restaurant to societies most severely downtrodden.  Afterall, as much as I always loved Assaggio, “back in the day” it was somewhat snobbish, the decor was always friendly and welcoming, and the food warm and hearty, but the ownership and management were famous for being a tad cold and above the average patron, afterall, they were experts in Italy and  wine and other high and mighty “swanky crap”. And for many moons it wasn’t easy to get in, the place didn’t take reservations and was always packed full of happy eaters. I remember one time about three years ago I saw Tom Potter sitting for about 1/2 an hour at the wine bar, patiently waiting for a table.

Over the years I’ve constantly recommended Assaggio to anyone I could think of, I never had any qualms. It was also a great place to send non-meat eaters, since it was famous for having tasty complex dishes that didn’t need meat to make them delicious. Sure, the menu seemed a bit static over the middle years, although I loved the fact that two people could pay $5 each and split three appetizers (originally it was only $3!), after a bit it seemed like I always ordered the smoked trout mousse, as the selection wasn’t shaken up that frequently. They always had such a giant rotating selection of pasta though, there was usually something new and interesting, or a favorite lurking there, and you and your dining partner could share a sampler of three chef’s selection pastas for a modest cost. Although I had a couple of wonderful cakes there, especially a pumpkin with buttercream frosting, as a general rule I wasn’t a orderer of desserts at Assaggio, they were always too authentically Italian for me, just not sweet enough, too austere. But who needed dessert anyway, you were always stuffed on starter samplers, incredible bread, and big dishes of excellent pasta.

I admit, I’ve read a few comments over the last 1-2 years saying there were complaints that Assaggio was slipping since the owners sold out to some employees a couple of years ago. I couldn’t remember what they were specifically, however, although I thought perhaps sliding quality was a complaint. Genoa went on fine, however, without its original owners, and while Oba! never seems to make any top top lists these days, when I went there a few months back I liked it just fine and found it largely unchanged from its burgeoning Pearl glory days. (Afterall, Marnie gave it “10 thumbs up”!) And if you look on various internet review sites, Assaggio still gets tons of favorable nods.

I became a bit nervous after Toro Bravo, it was hard for me to forecast just how large the interest would be for the next dinner, as quite a few people sounded like they might be thinking of joining us. So I decided to do the unprecedented for RR, schedule dinners two Fridays in a row at Assaggio. Afterall, it was crowd pleasing old friend Assaggio, and although having dinners three weeks in a row was a financial challenge for me, I thought I could probably swing it if two were at a place that generally had pretty moderate prices (next time, please remind me to actually look at the prices on the internet menu before I say that to everyone. The prices weren’t outrageous, but in Assaggio terms, the increases are steep since last time I was there two years ago).

Luckily, our head count at Assaggio came to only 10, not the 12 I had guessed on for the first reservation. The reason I say luckily is not because I didn’t want my usual hearty, barely controllable large group, it was because having the slightly smaller party, it gave me an opportunity to call the restaurant to change the reservation. I may be many things in my roll as RR hostess, but one thing I always do try to be is considerate to how many seats I am hogging at these restaurants, and if I can’t put butts in all the chairs I had planned on, I try to call and free them up for other people in advance. Imagine what a surprise it was for me to learn that whomever had taken my original two reservations two weeks ago had not bothered to write either one down, especially after insisting on taking my credit card number to hold my table (this is a reservation trend I’m not liking). I so remember the person I had made the reservations with, she had asked about why I needed two large reservations on successive Fridays, and was oh so pleased that I was part of a dining group and we were giving Assaggio two visits. Somehow the person I talked to last Friday night was not so polished and pleased to find out I was expecting to come with a surprise group of 10, and for some reason I was not pleased at all to have nine other people meeting me at Assaggio with no reservation. (Afterall, it’s not a particularly large place.) After much “hold on please”, and going away from the phone, it was decided that they could still squeeze us in, disaster averted, and I made sure they remade the reservation on the 27th as well (oh, silly me, but I try not to falsely advertise.)

So much for heeding the danger signs. Off I went to Assaggio Friday evening, happy to be visiting an old favorite of mine and to see how my new combination of diners would work out on this particular night, especially with three new new new people joining us. I arrived somewhat early, and can’t exactly say that the hostess looked ecstatic to see me. Wary was more like it, as she probably knew we were a big group that they hadn’t exactly gotten off on the best foot with. Or maybe she was the incognito Veronica, the person who had gotten all the blame for the reservation snafu. (Wow, what a universal concept in all places of employment, blame the person who isn’t there that day, or at least out of earshod! Earshod? Don’t get me going as to where that weird term could have come from). I was directed to the bar seating area, where Adele, the nights first RR rookie, was anxiously hoping someone else would be showing up soon. As is often typical from my westsiders from that down below state, they usually get there plenty early as they are never quite sure where all these crazy east side places are, or what kind of traffic to expect on the eastside (shades of our dear Marnie and Leo). As for me, I can never find anything on the westside (not counting downtown and the Pearl/NW) without those Lewis and Clark people and their wise N. American friend.

Eventually eight of us had trickled in by about 8:10, and we were totally crowding the wine bar area, but as usual, we were waiting for the ever present lingering types to leave our tables-to-be (were these people at Toro Bravo?) Finally the hostess came and said we could proceed to our table, if we walked slowly, as it was still being cleaned. Despite big boo boos, I still had high hopes, as inside Assaggio was as sweet as ever. I’ve always loved this space, the cozy little rooms, the subtle (in the wine bar side, dark) lighting, the perfect furnishings and faux sienna colored rag paint job. In fact, I’m such a sucker for this sort of cozy Italian decor that was all the rage about 10 years ago, it was with real sadness I recently read about the closing of the Tuscany Grill on NW 23rd, although I always found the food rather average, I loved the pseudo Italian decor in that place, I could live there and be happy. Just plant an olive tree outside.

Soon, our somewhat lost new friends Mello and Ivan found their way to our table. (They had a right to be lost, from Hillsboro to Sellwood is not the most straitforward trip). When it was time to order a libation and a pre-entree snack, I finally noticed how much Assaggio had changed. Gone was the gigantic book of wine and hundreds of bottles of Italian grapes, replaced by less than ten wines, only two available by the bottle. I know some of the wine bars like Navarre serve half carafes of wine, but Assaggio sells half glasses of vino, I suppose in case you only half like it. Julia found this extremely puzzling, especially as the 1/2 glasses weren’t that cheap.
Gone also were the appetizers samplers of three, either you ordered one big appetizer, a two bruschetta  combo, or a salad, or you were out of luck. Almost everyone I talked to commented on the Assaggio di Pasta, where you got the three pastas selected by the chef for $15.75, but now your entire table has to order it, where before you only needed two or more. Isn’t it a bit much to expect 10 people who barely know each other to all want the same pastas? And what if some are vegans and can’t eat multiple indredients the chef selects? How exciting could it be anyway, as the list of pastas at Assaggio has dwindled from about fifteen or twenty to seven?  And does it really make sense to have to serve ten portions of everything at a time? What if you had a reservation for a million (no doubt Assaggio would fail to write it down anyway,) how fun would that be, Assaggio trying to serve a million portions of three entrees all at the same time. I’m so glad I never take things to their extremes.

No long after we sat down, the waitress scampered over, an adorable young woman with big blue eyes, two dark pony tails on each side of her head, and a voice as loud as a dog whistle. I mention the projectional timidity of her voice, because one of the first things Ivan mentioned upon sitting down was the noise level and bad acoustics of the space, you were lucky if you could hear the people sitting across from you and beside you. So obviously the difficulty hearing the waitress, and the difficulty the waitress had hearing us all evening, compounded many problems. I must say though, despite everything that occured during the dinner, and for her many service issues, I still basically liked the waitress at the end of the meal. She appeared sweet and easy going to the somewhat dreadful conclusion, and did her best to good naturedly handle all the things that cropped up. She just seemed young and inexperienced as a server, in fact almost everyone at Assaggio looked really young (but quite good looking, which must could for something).

Okay, now that I’ve ravaged almost everything else at Assaggio, except the decor, let me start ripping apart the food. Just kidding, most of it wasn’t that bad, although as I mentioned earlier, the selection was much more limited than during all my other visits. To begin our dining “experience”, they brought out nice sized baskets of one of the still absolutely best things at Assaggio, their bread. I noticed a curious sign on the door when I had entered saying they now sold their bread on the weekend, and although I didn’t find the white the same crusty, chewy product as in previous days, as usual, the other half of the bread in the basket was their wonderful dark brown date bread filled with anise and other delightful spices. I admit, hog that I am, I had three pieces, and stand by my belief that it’s one of my favorite loaves in Portland (and we have some great ones here). That being said, it wasn’t as good as it used to be, most of the big hunks of date were missing, and the bread wasn’t as chewy and porous as it used to be. Despite that, if passing through Sellwood some weekend, I woundn’t mind stopping to buy a loaf, it’s still delicious (although after this, I probably will never be allowed in Assaggio again. Obviously, one of you will have to go for me).

Almost everyone had some sort of starter, be it antipasti, bruschette, or salad. Sara started off with the olive pomodori e mozzarella marinati (boy, this review is going to be an ordeal to type) which was marinated olives, tomatoes, and mozzarella. The olives were actually pitted, which I thought great after my pit chomping ordeal at Toro Bravo, and to me they had first class flavor, everything I ask for in an olive, except to pay for themselves, and since Sara was paying for these, I was on easy street. I also had a sampling of Bev and David’s two bruschette (it sounds positively obscene) and enjoyed the fagioli version with warm cannelini bean puree with sweet peppers, oregano and grana. The whole thing had a decidedly smoky taste, but it might just be that Assaggio always burns their grilled bread (really Sara, they always do that). Adele decisively enjoyed her insala di mare, which was a warm salad of steamed mussels, clams and shrimp with fennel, greens, wine, sweet butter, chili oil and crostini, and I think I saw Mello and Ivan splitting the gambero cotto spostato con proscutio, grilled shrimp wrapped in proscutio served on mixed greens and topped with roasted garlic aioli. Everyone else had a salad, Kimberly and I both selecting the insalata spinaci, which was a spinach salad with pears, gorgonzola (has anyone besides me ever noticed that gorgonzola sounds like a sea monster bent on destroying something or other?) and pancetta, with a honey basamic dressing. I thought the salad was fine, nothing outstanding, and not exactly overflowing with pears. Bev also had the insalata del fagiolo di fava (no more italian restaurants, I’m going to spend all night typing these torturous names!) a salad of baby arugula, fava beans, and asparagus with lemon balsamic vinaigrette topped with grana. All I can ask is, Bev, next time you see fava beans, try to calm down a little (she likes them, she really likes them).

Through all this chomping and gobbling (and whatever else other people were doing with their food), Lynne, the polite person to my right just sat there, foodless. I didn’t question this, as I thought perhaps she was budgeting this evening, especially since we all know lawyers barely make a living wage (tee hee). As a sidebar (ha, ha, legal humor), let me just say I never felt so safe at a dinner, surrounded by a law folk on each side, just in case something really bad happened (except for much of what transpired this evening, of course). Getting the waitress’ attention in all the noise was never easy, but finally Lynne spoke up in a commanding enough voice to ask why she was being given no food, as everyone else had some. It turns out the waitress never grasped the concept that Lynne actually wanted that salad she ordered, and relatively toute suite, another fava bean salad appeared (Lynne approached her fava beans so clamly she left nearly all of them behind on her plate. Different strokes I guess. One side of the table, fava ecstacy, the other side, fava distain.)

Actually, of all the people at our table, our two attorneys seemed our most persecuted parties (tee hee more legal yuk yuk) at Assaggio. Not only was Sara told her special entree was $15 when she ordered, and later told it was really $27, but when Lynne’s bruschette combo was delivered, it turns out they had given her the wrong two, so once again she had to wait for food after the rest of us had ordered. I think it also took forever for her half glass of red wine to be delivered, and when it finally came, it looked to me more like the average full pour of wine. No matter, when I asked her later which she had been charged for, she told me they forgot to bill us for any wine at all. Somehow it’s hard to believe Assaggio or the waitress suffered at all from this miscue, as after the dinner the tip ended up in abundance of adequate (why, oh why, you ask?)

At about the same time Lynne was being tormented by kitchen and wait staff, various other food faux pas were occurring at our table. Ivan was delivered the wrong bowl of pasta, which was soon whisked away once he promised he didn’t touch it (do tongues count? Just joking). When his tagliarini al limone arrived, wide pasta with scallops, lemon cream and nutmeg, he did enjoy it, as Mello enjoyed her strozzapretti all arrabbiata (come on you guys, next time just order cotton pickin lasagne) pasta with a medley of fresh vegetables, spicy tomato sauce and parmesan. I was happy that at least my newcomers were not all tormented with iffy food. David had spaghetti con aglio olio e peperoncini with black tiger prawns, which was a pretty simple dish of noodles, garlic, peppers, olive oil, herbs and chili flakes. He was decidedly disappointed, as the whole dish was not at all spicy, generally dry, and flirting with  flavorless. I (and the copycat Kimberly again!) had the gemelli al pomodoro secco, gemelli pasta with sun dried tomato cream, capers, and gorgonzola (kill the monster!!!!). This was an old Assaggio standby, and I thought it was pretty much the same as usual, although charging $16 for some twisty little noodles with a few capers, a tossing of moldy cheese, and a smattering of sauce might be a bit much.

Speaking of sauce smatterings, three people ordered the ravioli de salmone alla vodka (if only it had come with a shot of real vodka) the yummy sounding salmon stuffed ravioli in a vodka, tomato cream sauce, and all three people were relatively let down by the experience. All thought the ravioli tough and I heard the ever complimentary gummy used as well. All three portions had various levels of sauciness. Someone (Bev, was that you?) had about the right amount of sauce laying on top, but Adele’s was as dry as the Italian desert (you know that famous place, right?) and Julia’s was lurking somewhere in the middle, the saucometer finally flopping over to lacking essential moistness. The kitchen got tired of the waitress continually bringing back ravioli for additional sauciness, and finally sent out a big bowl of sauce, which sadly, almost everyone at the table wanted to add to something they were eating, as many items seemed lacking. Adele kindly thought the ravioli tasted good enough, but was just poorly executed. Everyone commented how there was a lack of fresh parmesan offered (odd, as I saw many graters with cheese lying on the counter in the bar area, but maybe these were just for atmosphere, and filled with dusty wax cheese.) Finally someone asked for more cheese, and a small freshly grated bowl was presented. Sadly, many people fell upon the cheese just as they had fallen upon the extra sauce, trying to zing and zest up their food.

Here’s what our friend Sara had to say about her food, and Assaggio in general ….

“Assaggio doesn’t give me much to work with. I don’t really have anything to say because it felt like half a movie, I was missing something. Ironically, I was the most satisfied with my dish (from what I could tell), and it wasn’t a special and it wasn’t on the menu. I asked if they have linguine with clam sauce. I was craving linguine in clam sauce, and my senses got confused when the waitress described the cippioni, and wrongly decided that pasta came with the course. The cippioni was actually good, but in my haste in ordering it, I spent way too much money, and didn’t get the one thing I told myself I had to get: pasta in some shape or form. I usually get one of two things in Italian restaurants, based on what I don’t cook myself: sausage or seafood. That’s half of my story. The other half made more sense later when you wrote that they were closing down for renovations. Maybe there was a sense of giving up on their part. In New York, closed for renos usually does not mean something good: prolonged closures, disharmony with the owners, or impending bankruptcy. Because I did not have a history with this place, I just didn’t feel that extra vibe of an experience, and the setting was not providing it to me. So, despite good food for me, there was a void that made it nothing special. Though most of the group’s dishes were just ok, I want to think that this was a one-off experience, so I am holding out for another go in the future. Thankfully, the dinner companions were fun as always, and that’s what works for me. ”

Thanks Sara for your modest praise indeed.

And surprise, surprise, no one wanted to stay longer for dessert or coffee afterward. Probably good, as by the time we were really to leave, we had been the only customers there for around 30 minutes.

More fun and games insued when it was time to pay the bill. Assaggio clearly states on their menu “no split checks for parties over six”. (This must mean it’s okay to have six split checks though). The waitress clearly didn’t understand what this meant, as she kept telling us that we couldn’t use three credit cards and cash to pay the bill. We kept trying to explain that we weren’t spliting the check, just using multiple forms of payment. By this time the waitress’ eyes were spinning in circles, and she gigglingly proclaimed “I can’t do this, I’m not good at math”. She kept going to the payment area, only to return to tell us no, she could not do it, it was not allowed. Finally Lynne talked to her in a slow and concise voice, close to a mother to a naughty child voice, and explained what she needed to do as far as running all three credit cards first, and finally the waitress understood, giggling, “oh, that was so easy”. Cheery and perky to the end.

Eventhough Assaggio was an incredible letdown, (especially to me), as Sara mentioned, with the RR Gang, the company and conversation almost always makes up for it. On this occasion, I managed to be the evening’s complete goober (how totally unusual), getting my tongue all twisted and talking about something I had seen on “the internude,”, then questioning who had been goofy enough to put down their bank deposit slip with their payment (me, yet again!) Just a stellar evening for me and my superior intelligence.

As many of you know, the fun didn’t stop even after we had gotten into our cars and proceeded home. Although I was feeling a bit guilty about it, I was planning on having another dinner at Assaggio this coming Friday. Although I was surely fooling myself, I thought perhaps Assaggio had just had a really off night, and would be better the coming Friday, and the new people would laugh when they saw what the first group went through. Assaggio took care of the whole situation, however, by leaving me a very abrupt message saying they were canceling my reservation for the 27th. When I called back, the person who left me the message would not even come to the phone (and I had not identified myself in any way), but someone, I think the person who had dealt with the screwed up reservations on Friday, got on the phone to tell me they had made a sudden decision to close for 10 days for construction. When I asked why no one had told me this the night before, when I remade the reservation for the 27th, they said no one knew, it was just decided on that day. Wow, that’s impressive. I tried to question them further,  to figure out if they just didn’t want us back, but I was told that they knew nothing (no kidding), that the famous Veronica would have to call me back.

Veronica did actually call me back, Sunday evening. She was apologetic, saying she had taken the liberty of booking us a reservation at Pinochio’s, a similar restaurant to Assaggio, and owned by “good friends of theirs” (DANGER, DANGER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) Yes, that was quite a liberty. Making me a reservation without asking. She also said that if we didn’t want to visit this Assaggio clone (quite the prospect) she would book me a reservation anywhere I wanted in town. I explained that I had already made a reservation at Mama Mia, but thanks for her effort. When I quizzed Veronica about the sudden closing for construction, she said the original plan was to close in August, but the repairs could not wait. When I queried her about how my other two reservations had not managed to get written down, she said yes, she was trying to get to the bottom of that, and she had an idea who it might have been. That was interesting, as everyone else had mentioned her name, and speaking with her, I think she was the person I originally placed the reservations with, the most professional and smooth sounding person on Assaggio’s staff. If we had shown up at Pinochio’s, we would probably would have found out Veronica had forgotten to place that reservation as well.

I don’t know what is going on with Assaggio, if they are closing for construction, it’s hard to believe they won’t be reopening, they still seemed busy Friday night. Wherever their problem lies, dining there made me think of watching a junior high play on what it’s like to run a real restaurant. I hope someday they manage to get some adults involved with their production, for everyone’s sake.