Fratelli, A Venetian Crackhouse No More



First of all, an observation on Italian Dining in the Pearl, this mainly based on two restaurants, Fratelli and Giorgios. (Piazza Italia doesn’t count, it might be in the Pearl, but it totally tends to lack all Pearlishness.) 


Rule #1- Italian dining in the Pearl is stylish, the restaurants here have lovely atmosphere and hordes of well dressed customers.


Rule #2 –  Italian dining in the Pearl involves quality ingredients and deliciously and expertly prepared food. 


Rule #3 – Italian dining in the Pearl is for bird-like to moderate appetites, although Italian food has a reputation for being heavy and hearty. If you’re really hungry and plan on going to one of those signature Italian places in the Pearl, plan on ordering all kinds of things. 

And in accordance with dining rule #3 – 


Rule #4 – Italian dining in the Pearl is expensive, bring massive wads of cash.


More elaboration on these rules later, but now, more commentary on my snazzy title. As some might remember, in my Coming Events description for Fratelli, I mentioned the ubiquitous orange door that until recently greeted everyone entering Fratelli, and that famous weird and strange narrow hallway that made the average person feel like they might be entering some ramshackle house of ill repute or on their way to a drug deal gone bad (come now, is there any other type of drug deal?) 


What can I say, I just don’t get to the Pearl as much as I used to, I’m behind the times (just shoot me now,) all that is gone. Fratelli has a real entrance now, and an attractive, glassy, perfectly Pearl storefront (hey, I miss that orange door though.) When I first cruised by looking for parking, I couldn’t spot the place at first, it’s all shiny and has a real sign now, and it’s nice. But really, in many ways, wasn’t that one of those charming and wonderful things about old Fratelli, the weird yellow paint, the orange door, the funky black lettering on the building that served as signage, you were never quite sure what was lurking back there, especially after going down that crazy red hall and expecting to have your brains bashed out at any moment. But then you entered that quaint, cozy narrow space with the concrete walls, the Persian rugs, the weird askew light fixtures, rustic beam ceiling (complete with PVC pipe,) dark lurking artwork and dim but warm candlelight. It was always such a nice surprise, even when you’d been there before.


But Fratelli is all grown up now, and it’s a well established eatery in P. Town, and looks like one too. One of the galleries next door finally called it quits, so, as I’m sure they’ve taken their share of snide remarks over the years about their restaurant’s unorthodox entryway, Fratelli jumped on the chance to expand by adding a small bar (also serving as a waiting area) and a whole new gateway to their establishment in the process. Interestingly enough, you can still see the old entryway still lurking there between the bar and restaurant spaces, that long red hall to nowhere (an interesting perspective when you peek from the door across from the restrooms, if you are snoopy and decide not to sit on one of the cushions stationed here for eager toilet waitees.)


The Fratelli Bar, Bar Due, is a cute dark little place that seems a pleasant venue for a drink, or waiting for a table, and features a special happy hour menu as well that includes pizza from their toasty wood burning oven and the antipastis from the regular dinner menu. It’s nice that Fratelli now has this new space to work with, but the last thing I really want to see in The Pearl, or NW Portland, or even downtown, is fewer art galleries. The galleries and First Thursday really got The Pearl reved-up and on the map to the world class status it now has, and I really hate to contemplate all the art spaces which have departed the Pearl in the last three years or so, As many of you probably know, I love quality restaurants and eating out, but I also love art and galleries and the education, creativity, and culture they bring. This part of The Pearl used to be such a wonderful place to stroll around and see art, and while I know several of the galleries have just moved a few blocks east to bigger spaces and lower rents, I really hate to think that the area around 12th will soon be nothing but high end clothing shops, expensive restaurants, and looming condos. Blah, blah, blah, life on the soapbox is such an elite and lonely place.


Okay everybody, you can wake up now, I’m getting back to the actual dinner. 


I was actually quite nervous when I saw the outside of Fratelli, and the new bar area, as I was afraid they had also decided to revamp or renovate the dining room in some way. But the people behind Fratelli must understand that their quaint little dining space is one of their strongest charms, after all, there is plenty of well-prepared cuisine to be had everywhere in The Pearl, in just the surrounding 2-3 blocks you have Oba! (next door,) Olea, Holdens, and Giorgios. Those are good eats! Oh, to be an ant in this area, strolling (yes, ants stroll too, I’ve seen them,) up and down these summer sidewalks, you would be in insect heaven from the outside dining alone, and all these P. District crumb brushers.


As RR is still stumbling through those slow holiday months, we were a small group this evening. We were made even smaller by one of us throwing themselves too heartily into their New Year aroebic exercises, and throwing their back muscles hither thither (hither thither, sounds like a good British type of term for an over-indulgent Brit, don’t you all think?) Luckily, I had a couple of other kind and willing bodies who agreed to join me on this wet and extremely wind-swept January evening (one of whom had to dress by flashlight due to a wide ranging power failure, and who still managed to keep a brave face despite the half baked, lovingly made cake now languishing in her frigid oven. So the first RR dinner of 2008 occurred  as planned, this meaning Restaurant Roulette has now spanned three sets of years now, existing in parts of 2006, 2007, and now, the beginning of 2008. Long live our dining dynasty (and more importantly, may my rickety income hold out all the years that RR does exist!!!!)


You know, it’s funny what the power of suggestion can do. In the past, I’ve dined at Fratelli a couple of times, and thought it was a really nice space with good if not overly filling food. When I decided on a whim to add it to our roster (for some reason, I had never really considered it before,) I decided I would peruse the website to see what the menu was looking like these days. It was there that I noticed that Fratelli bills itself as “Venetian Cuisine.” Suddenly, I liked Fratelli a whole lot more. I’ve really never noticed any local restaurants billing themselves as Italian/Venetian (although I know you’re out there I’m sure,) and as Venice is a place that holds a special, stinky, magical place in my heart, I was anxious to have some miniscule part of it near to me again. Yes, sad but true, in my now totally devoid of any travel days, even the idea of a restaurant promoting itself as “Venetian-like” excites me. So while I was sitting there at the table alone, waiting for the rest of my party, I could actually imagine myself off some little alleyway in a Venetian trattoria, perhaps formerly a Venetian palace, surrounded by flickering shadows, aged concrete walls, tasteful artwork, and fine rugs from the Orient covering the floor. The rough ceiling, PCV piping, and ultra modern light fixtures were really mood wreckers though.


The real irony, however, is that I never really had any fine cuisine when I was in Venice about 10 years ago. For one thing, my travel companion was kind of a spoil sport, he wasn’t enamored with Venice like I was, so I only got to stay a couple of days. In that time frame, I had a mystery (strange pureed components) sandwich from one of those odd little corner sandwich windows that are everywhere in Venice, another lunch at a cafeteria where it was about $40 each for some weird fried chicken and Chef Boyardee like pasta (instead of Venetian cafeteria, it was more like high school cafeteria,) had other substandard pasta sitting outside at night, along the Grand Canal, close to the foot of the Rialto Bridge (okay, the setting was nice,), and westernized CHINESE FOOD where the people were really nice (and even Chinese!) and where, when I ordered dessert, they ran to a little all night shop and bought it from the freezer case. I’m sure other people with non-expansive incomes like myself have similar Venetian food memories, because the rule of Venice is, you usually have to spend two arms and three legs to get good Italian food, it’s probably the most expensive in Italy. So sometimes, you make those sacrifices, you chose to go to the extremely expensive country, and stay in “decent” accommodations, but you eat substandard, crappy food.


That concludes this evening’s travelogue, “How to spend money like a millionaire, but eat like a pauper in Italy.”


See ya, and happy travels! 


Whoops, perhaps (as is the Venetian way) I got a bit lost and off track there. Hmm, wasn’t some of this supposed to have something to do with a dinner at Fratelli? Nothing like trying to fill out the ol’ review when you don’t have too many dishes to describe.


Actually, the price of my glass of Pinot Grigio at Fratelli was quite Venetian-like. I know many places in Portland charge $8.00 for an average pour of relatively common white wine nowadays, I suppose what stuck in my craw was the fact that a year or so ago I paid probably $6.99 for an entire bottle of this Kris Pinot Grigio at World Market. Places do better when they fool me with wine brands I don’t know, that way I don’t complain when I pay more for one glass of wine than an entire bottle. If only we could make a markup like that on the products my employer disperses into the economy, then I would be off to Venice every year!


For some reason, two of us were really stumbling over what we wanted to order this evening, and took a very long time eyeballing the menu (not helped by them turning down the already dim lighting to a  practically “as bright as inside your eyelids” brightness level.) Our good friend Glenda, as always, seemed to have a plan, and decisively decided (decisively decided? You would never know English is my native tongue,) what her selections would be. After Lynne snuck off to steal someone else’s candle, things were certainly illuminated better, but the indecision continued. In the interim, the waitress brought some very strange (for Portland) marshmallow-esk and not particular appealing bread,  and a small ramekin of okay olive oil. I haven’t had bread this bad since the last time I was at Pastini (a place that I find decent, and a good value, but where the bread is terrible,) but I’m sure this not at all crackly, crispy, or even pleasingly tough bread had its precedence somewhere in Italy, or Fratelli wouldn’t serve it with all the great bread that is available in this town. I do seem to remember some pretty lame bread floating around Tuscany, where even worse, it was without salt, so I’m sure this bread must have some Italian roots. By and large though, it sucked.


For a change, I decided instead of a salad, I would try some Antipasti. The deal at Fratelli is you can have a selection of one for $3, three for $7, or six for $12. Now don’t think for a moment I didn’t think about having six of them, out of control snack lover that I am. Luckily there weren’t really six I wanted to try, so I settled for the 3 for $7.00. (Fratelli has a similar deal with bruschette and fancy cheeses served in small portions as well. Variety is so fun!!! Even though I worship at the altar of the goddess of cheese, however, I would never pay $4 for a little hunk of cheese or$16 for five little hunks of cheese. I do currently have seven varieties of cheese in my refrigerator though. I wonder why I can’t lose any weight? After all, I only have about six kinds of ice cream in there as well.)


Anyway, back to those Antipasti! The first selection I decided on was “Chicken liver mousse crostini with pickled vegetables.” I was never quite certain what those pickled vegetables were, to me they looked like shavings of a pickled onion, but they were pretty mild, so they might have been some other vein-laden root vegetable. The three little rounds of crostini where thin and just the perfect crispness, and the chicken liver mousse was delicate, smoothly processed, and very tasty. My second Antipasti were some thin slices of just plain salami, and while this might have been some high-falutin salami, it taste the same as most Genoa salami I’ve had all my life. My third Antipasti was two or three pretty little triangular wedges with Gravlox and some sort of cheese (marscapone perhaps) thinly displayed on some crispy, delicate flatbread like crackers. Let me tell you, just once I’d like to be able to bite through a piece of lox without having the entire hunk come off in one bite. These delicate little appetizers were delicious, but once the razor thin wedge of fish came flying off in the first bite, the party was pretty much over when it came to the rest of the cracker having much flavor. I really liked this starter though, and the liver mousse, if only it came in my size portions, about 10 to 20 of each (10 of the mousse, 20 of the gravlox, after all, I’m no glutton here.)


I hate to be too brief with the other starters that were ordered, but to be honest, I don’t know that much about what they were, as the menu has changed significantly since the on-line menu was posted, and on this evening, I didn’t choose to “borrow” a menu. (I think they were made of solid gold, or bolted to the table or something.) Lynne had a “House Insalata” that bragged it was made with “Weppler Greens.” (Sorry, I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, I embarrassingly don’t know what Weppler Greens are. How absolutely gauche!!) I do remember they were dressed with an herb vinaigrette. Originally I had a typo and that said “herd vinaigrette.” There’s something I wouldn’t want within 12 feet of my Weppler Greens, herd vinaigrette. To cut all further digression (for this sentence at least,) Lynne said it was a pretty standard Italian sort of salad, but very good still. Glenda, who always seems to find the most unusual item to order, even when it comes to salad, had “Escarole Insalata with spiced mixed nuts.” She was very pleased with her selection, but I unfortunately don’t remember what the other ingredients were, only that her hard and bullet like nuts occasionally shot across the table, but in Glenda’s case, only in the most tasteful and considerate fashion imaginable.


On to those entrees, before my computer warrantee expires (so what if I just got it in November, it could be based on words typed.) Lynne went for the pasta I had been considering for a long time, until (as always) serious meat wooed me away. It was a “Tagliarini” (which could not be more different from Tagliatelli if it tried, tagliatelli is usually big wide noodles, and this was tiny little morsels of pasta,) and came with plenty of peppers and three grilled shrimp, and perhaps some cheese (I think the menu said gerbil cheese, or something similar. Or in Lynne’s case it might have been squirrel cheese, she loves our little woodland friends so!) The waitress warned her that it was probably the spiciest thing on the menu, because of all the peppers, and Lynne proclaimed it was indeed spicy, but not

overwhelmingly so, and very tasty.


Glenda had a `”Duo of Lamb (Agnello)” (or was it a Trio of Agnello, it was pretty dark in there?) which was different cuts of lamb prepared two (or three) ways.   Glenda, like myself, knows how to eat her meat, barely done (although we all decided rare chicken was not a favorite of ours,) and requested rare. The waitress informed her that one of the preparations, a braised and shredded situation, would not be served as rare, but she also got something that looked like a rare lamb chop to boot. Glenda said all preparations (be it two or three) were excellent, and she seemed to savor every morsel.


As for me, I know you’ll all be shocked and amazed, but I had beef. I tried to put that cowey goodness  out of my mind, but naturally, once Lynne mentioned she thought that was probably what I was thinking of choosing, (those lawyers and their evil mind games) I was completely compelled and psychically hoodwinked into thinking I must have it, although she helpfully offered other suggestions not involving steer, but then IT WAS TOO LATE!


In this case I had “Cascade Natural hanger steak with a peppercorn reduction and au gratin potatoes,” which Fratelli referred to as “Bistecca.” They can’t fool me though, I’ve been to that boot shaped country, and I learned from my guidebook that the proper cut of beef that matches the term “Bistecca” is a bone-in steak similar to a T-Bone with very little or nothing on the tenderloin side of the bone. You can’t pull the cow over my eyes, I had a very good one at a little bistro in Florence during a pouring rainstorm (Oh wait, almost every second I was in Florence was a drenching rainstorm and/or thunderstorm, that crazy Tuscan weather. I think they save all the good weather for the Italians.)


My steak and potatoes were very good, and well prepared, but as I always find at Fratelli, one to two bites short of filling. This is the third time I have eaten at Fratelli, and the third time I have not been really full at the end of my meal, even with the three antipasti. This was also true after my two meals at Giorgios, I would have liked a bit more food. These places make great meals, but they are not cheap, couldn’t they slap a little more substance down on the plate at these mid to high for PDX Italian food prices? As we all know, I’m not exactly famous for having a bird like appetite, and I hadn’t really had a ton of food during the day, and was pretty hungry by 7:00. That being said, for the first time ever (??) at an RR dinner, Lynne inquired if someone would like to share a dessert with her. This would lead me to believe her dinner was not overwhelmingly filling either. Glenda’s lamb portion seemed just right though, and for once, she did not contemplate dessert (although we shared our dessert three ways in the end.) The dessert we decided on was a small wedge of some of the most intense flourless cake I have ever had, topped with whipped cream and accompanied by almonds with smoked sea salt. Most of the time, I am pretty lukewarm on these immensely chocolatey cakes, but this was probably close to the best I have ever had, both the flavor and texture of the chocolate cake and the contrast provided by the salted almonds made it a real winner.


The service at Fratelli was excellent, and friendly, and by the time we left, the restaurant was packed with stylish people “in the know” about quality Italian dining. My main puzzlement was in the restroom, where someone had left a chair from the dining room about 6 inches from the front of the toilet in the one-person women’s room. What was this about I wondered,  a throne-time gab-session between two women lacking all sense of embarrassment? (And perhaps sense of smell?) Confusion by someone who couldn’t tell the difference between a toilet and a wooden chair? An impromptu bidet? It’s a mystery for the ages.


It’s true, this RR dinner was pretty sparsely attended, which surprised me at a quality place like Fratelli. It might have just been the timing, right after the stress-inducing, money-sucking holidays. All you who did not attend, however, missed a quality (if somewhat expensive) dinner filled with actual, one on one, genuine conversation, something that is not easily managed at those dinners of 8-12 people. So it was a good dinner, and while perhaps it was not as lively as one of those crazy free-for-alls with 12 people shouting out comments, every once and a while, it’s nice to have one of these small dinners featuring good food amongst burgeoning friends. Now, if I could only put that brain-wracking restroom mystery out of my mind. (Of course, it never takes much to wrack this brain.)