The Gritty And The Glory

In about the first three months of the beginnings of Restaurant Roulette, 3.75 years ago, I took some of my earliest diners to Ciao Vito, one of my top five restaurants at that time. It’s amazing how things have changed in Portland dining during that time frame, especially the explosion of wonderful, interesting restaurants in P.Town. Nowadays, I don’t think I could even name a top five, there are just too many options. I might be able to manage a top ten, but even in that case, I probably would not be able to rate them within the top ten.

Portland, and myself, have gotten a great deal more sophisticated since this group began, and occasionally when I return to an old favorite, I find it dated or faded.IMG_1444 Always sad. Over the last few months I’ve been debating over at least three quality Italian restaurants, all of which I and other group members have been to, deciding which I would insert into the roster in early 2010. Naturally, I went with my heart and selected Ciao Vito, my favorite of the lot. When perusing C.V.s on-line menu to type up the RSVP for the last dinner, I must admit I had a couple of moments of hesitation, though, as it seemed like almost the exact same menu as the last time I ate there (with the exception of missing Razor Clams and Smoked Duck Legs, two of their early signature dishes.) I worried and fretted a tad, has Ciao Vito become dated, is it coasting on its Alberta Street location?

After our recent dinner at Ciao Vito, I would say that Ciao Vito has done a good job keeping things fresh.IMG_1451 As is the case with many restaurants, the main thing that seems dated is their on-line menu, they actually had a good variety of old standards and new, interesting items to try on our visit, and the restaurant itself seems to change very little over time. This includes the very competent but somewhat “removed” wait staff, always a bit formal and perhaps, on occasion, snooty (this is something I have read numerous times, but not experienced) the lovely, dark decor (I finally got to sit at that fun table under the big chandelier!) and the fact that while many entree prices fall within the arena of modest, starters and drinks are getting mighty spendy, like many, many of the good places around town.

Ciao Vito seems to be a place that polarizes people, either you like it or you don’t. Often I’ll take a group to a restaurant and everyone will find the food so-so, or love everything, but Ciao Vito seems to elicit both reactions at the same table, either people love it or don’t care for it. I can’t see where this dinner changed too many minds, my end of the table seemed really happy with the food they got, but the other end of the table was positive/neutral to negative. Maybe if the staff at Ciao Vito was a tad warmer they could win a few of the neutral people over, but as a general rule, you like the place or you don’t.

I must say when I arrived at this, my largest dinner in two years, I found the hostess to be extremely friendly and welcoming, and perkily dressed too, in her really colorful spring ensemble. Quite a contrast to those dusky walls and flickering candles that make the decor at Ciao Vito so cozy yet slightly formal. (I’m always a sucker for rustic Italian decor, if that’s what Ciao Vito actually is.) IMG_1440I was also able, when seated, to look outside and see daylight, our first daylight dinner of 2010, and to see our fun new friend Liz almost flattened by a car when halfway across Alberta (which didn’t bother me quite so much at the time, since until she sat down at the table, I didn’t recognize her, as I’d never seen her in natural light.) Luckily Liz entered unscathed, but to be honest, I felt a little sorry for the driver too, as all the way to this dinner, driving West down Fremont and Alberta in the blinding sun, I kept thinking, I hope that no one decides to step out in the street to cross, as I really can’t see a dang thing.

There really is something about that first daylight dinner of the year though, when you are seated by a big window, it’s so much nicer to be eating out, especially on a sunny evening like this one. Besides luckily intact Liz (perhaps not a nickname to be repeated) and Rusty Nail Dillenburg, this dinner had a nice mix of new, old, and really old (no not Glenda, you silly folk, but Frank and Grace, really early members in the scope of RR membership.) Speaking of Glenda though, she seemed to be looking extra resplendent this evening in her shiny golddish-olivey Neuru jacket, no wonder this woman was filming a B of A commercial earlier this week (or so she said.) David mentioned her ensemble frequently enough, it was clear he would have liked this outfit for himself. Hey David, you can forget carrying off that look until you can get your hair to flow like Glenda’s.

Of course, Heidi and Julian also joined us, which was one of my intentions as well, as Julian had mentioned at Acadia that CV’s Pork Sugo was probably the best dish he had had all year, although I don’t know if that meant what’s gone by in 2010, or meant 12 months before that. Our third couple were new folk, actually the parents of last dinner’s new RR diner, Melissa. Melissa had sent me an email last week from 1/2 way across the country explaining that she was out of town, but could her parents join us. Although I’ve had mother and daughter come together, a parent invite a child at the last moment, and brothers join in, this is the first time I’ve had parents want to come (of course, it also helps when people are young, and their parents are still alive. Sadly, we probably won’t be seeing Glenda’s parents.)IMG_1439 Anyway, this was a fun development, and I was happy to include Barbara and John in the fold, especially since after talking to Melissa, I knew they were “foodies.” Frank had warned me that he and Grace were likely to be late, but I actually thought they did a fine job, within about 20 minutes of everyone else’s arrival (Tigard and three tiny children, need I say more?) At that point, we hadn’t even ordered anything except for drinks.

Maybe because it was sunny and bright (although a tad chilly, as people remarked upon seeing people eating and drinking outside) we had quite a few people in a cocktail mood, my choice being La Momma, a pink and somewhat citrus oriented drink with pomegranate. IMG_1438Not bad at all. Liz had what I think was called the Liberace, which she mentioned might have been better hot, as it reminded her of apple cider. Barbara had a yellow thing (Dead Floating Canary? Probably not) which I know was the first thing on the drink menu, and I think she said had a lot of liquor floating on top. David had a (ho hum) Rusty Nail, which he was charged $10 for, the highest tariff ever, and Glenda had a big whoppin’ glass of Scotch. Viewing the photos, I know Grace also had a drink of some sort, maybe another D.F.C., and Barbara and John ordered a couple of nice bottles of red wine, which they kindly offered to share with Heidi. There’s just nothing like getting liquored up before some good eatin’.

A strange phenomenon occured when bread was delivered. I often comment on the fact that Glenda is a very sensible eater, and while she doesn’t necessarily shy away from fatty foods or desserts, she tends to watch her carb intake when it comes to noodles, potatoes, and bread.IMG_1441 So I rarely see her eat bread when it comes to the table, especially if she’s anticipating other carbohydrates. On this evening, however, she was eating all the crusts off the bread, then returning the naked bread hunks to the plate. Even more interesting, people continued to scoop up Glenda’s bread “remains”, almost like they preferred the bread crustless (I like the whole bread “package” myself.) It was almost like an evolutionary process, Glenda would nibble off the crust (okay, not nibble, perhaps tear) and return them to the bread plate, and a minute later, I would look again, and the bread insides were gone. So when I tell you Restaurant Roulette is a group into sharing, please don’t doubt me.

This was really another of those dinners where I almost get full before my entree arrives (or in this case I was almost full before my starter arrived) mainly because so many small plates were ordered, and most things floated up and down the table for all interested parties. Of course this was helped along by our good friends Grace and Frank joining us, and Grace wanting four to six items to taste. You just gotta love this woman.

Since this was a dinner for 10, and another long skinny seating arrangement, it was really hard for me to tell what was going on at the other end of the table, what people ordered and what they thought of their food.IMG_1442 I emailed Heidi later to see what she knew about the goings on at the table’s west end, and she shared a few opinions with me. She commented on the rather alarming trend I have mentioned from visits at several restaurants lately, the fact that the starters seem so expensive these days, and often aren’t that large or interesting for the amount you pay. Ciao Vito actually does have several appetizers in the $6, $7 or $8 range, but they have even more that are $9-$13. Interestingly enough, no entree is more than $20, most are $18 or $19, and all are good values at the cost, which Heidi also mentioned.

I think Heidi’s main unhappiness about the starters was that she and Julian paid $11 for the Grilled Garlic Bruschetta (fresh housemaid mozzarella/Tenuta id Capezzana 2008 Olive oil/30 year old balsamic vinegar.) Her main complaint was that for over $10 you got two wedges of toasted bread, three blobs of melted cheese, and some balsamic vinegar dribbled over everything. She said she thought she could whip up something equally good at home. IMG_1446You go girl, get out your 35 year old balsamic vinegar, and I know I could find some olive oil in the back of my cupboard that was much older than 2008! Seriously though, I’m sure Ciao Vito based the price of this starter on the high quality ingredients involved, but no matter how fancy the vinegar might be, some things just aren’t worth the price, and even if you sprinkle them with liquid gold (remember that stuff, probably not good on bread) two hunks of toast and three blobs of cheese may never be worth $11.

Heidi and Julian are big Caesar Salad fans, they almost always get them when available, and they found $10 perhaps a bit high for a pretty average preparation, even if it was big (Classic Caesar Salad – whole leaf romaine, garlic, fresh lemon, anchovy, garlic croutons and pecorino romano.) David had one of these monsters at our end of the table, (more Killer Croutons!) and several of us had some spears. I don’t know, maybe David’s had been prepared separately, because I thought his was really delicious, so garlic laden and full of creamy flavor.

I had a different salad, the Spanish Salad, which was also quite good, relatively unusual for these parts, and also $10. (It’s making me sad that I’m getting so jaded when it comes to the price of starters they days, I don’t even blanche at $10 salads.) IMG_1452My salad consisted of endive, radicchio, Granny Smith apples, chorizo, buttermilk blue cheese and fried almond dressing. I really like unusual salads, and this fit the bill without being weird, the apple kept to a minimum and the chorizo being first rate quality. Yummy, if you don’t mind little slices of meat in your salad.

Another item ordered at our end of the table, by David, but meant for sharing, was Crispy Beef and Pork Meatballs with Tomato Sauce and Fried Mozzarella.IMG_1450 I’m not really a big meatball person, they are nice in pasta and prepared Swedishly, but I had a couple, and they were really quite good, and spicy too. I noticed someone at the other end of the table had an order going too, most likely Frank and Grace, but I never heard their opinion. I actually met Frank for the first time at our original Ciao Vito dinner (if you use the search engine on this blog you can locate that) and although I think he forgets this, he actually wrote some positive comments that evening. I mention that because he told me before this dinner that he’s not really a Ciao Vito fan, but Grace wanted to come (Thank You Grace.) I thought it was so nice at that first dinner how he had gotten Grace a whole dinner to go, as she was at work I think. Looking at the pictures from this dinner, I think the Hsu/Chens might have gotten a Beet Salad too (warm baked goat cheese, roasted beets, vermouth vinegar-olive oil-thyme dressing, spiced Steenson Farm hazelnuts) but I really wasn’t the least bit disappointed that a beety thing never made it to our end of the table.

Other Frank and Grace discards that made it to our end of the table (with thanks) included Antipasti Della Casa (salami!) and Spaghetti Agli’Olio (angel hair pasta with garlic, breadcrumbs, chile flake and reggiano.) This is similar to a simple plate of pasta I make for myself quite often at home, with the addition of a few Tiger Prawns. Sadly, after tasting this, mine will probably always seem somewhat lacking. IMG_1447Either David or Liz took a bite of this linguine (they’re so similar, no wonder I can’t remember which) and exclaimed, wow, garlic! They weren’t kidding, this was like garlic with pasta seasoning. But in a good way, not harsh. Somehow, even though I add a ton or garlic to my home version, the garlic always ends up overcooked and often biting. This was also one of the cheaper starters, at $7. (Of course, it doesn’t have the world’s most expensive ingredients.)

The most expensive of the starters ($13), which was also the most elaborate, proved too hard to resist to three members of our party, the Fungi Al Cartoccio, a “medley of mushrooms (blonde morels, black trumpet, sweet tooth, crimini and shitake) with butter, white wine, and fresh herbs, baked in parchment and served with garlic crostini.” Although a beautiful preparation, coming out all steamy and puffy and ready to be punctured at the table by the waiter, the dish ended up being problematic to our evening. When Liz and Barbara dug in, they both complained that although the combination of flavors was delicious, one of the elements tasted gritty from incomplete washing. Glenda also had the medley of mushrooms, and while she originally seemed fine with this fungus combo, about two thirds through, she detected “sandiness” as well. Heidi tried a bite of someone’s serving, and also found a disturbing gritty element.

Barbara’s theory, only one of the mushrooms was to blame, the blonde morels, thinking that because of their brainy caps, they probably took a great deal of additional washing. IMG_1449A bit later, when one of the additional servers approached the table, she explained the mushroom dilemma, mentioning that perhaps the kitchen needed to add bit more washing. I don’t know if it was really even a “complaint”, it was more like a “remark” or “recommendation”, but soon we had another staff member at out table, (perhaps the manager?) explaining that people had complained of this grittiness before, but that it was not from improper mushroom washing, it was from kosher salt that didn’t necessarily dissolve during the cooking process. No one at the table who ate this concoction seemed to buy this excuse, they all were sure it was not salt.

I really don’t know, I was too busy tasting everything else to sample something several people insisted was cleaned improperly. I occasionally cook with Kosher salt and it is very coarse, and sometimes it doesn’t really dissolve, but if this was the case, Barbara asked why it was dissolved in the rest of the dish, but why not on just one mushroom? I was a bit confused as to how, after they had all been chopped up and baked together, you could tell one mushroom from another, unless the morel is so shriveled it sticks out from the rest.

I suppose the main reason I mention this entire episode, and the fact that it added a rather negative tinge to our evening, was the way Ciao Vito handled the comments about the offending mushrooms. As alluded to before, Ciao Vito has never been a place famous for their down-to-earth, friendly staff, and while they do a professional job, they don’t exactly make you feel you are amongst family.IMG_1445 The first person Barbara talked to about the mushrooms practically made a face, and we were not even sure she would pass the comment on. The second staff member offered no apologies, they basically just insisted we were wrong, like many before us were wrong. This rankled a few at our table, and certainly verges on poor customer service. But Ciao Vito does seem intent on placing themselves somewhat above the customer, so I suppose it’s not overly surprising that they wouldn’t be falling all over themselves to right what they didn’t consider a wrong. If it was salt, however, and they continually get this complaint when people order the medley of mushrooms, why wouldn’t they change to a different salt to avoid all these complaints, or at least warn people that any residual sandiness is Kosher salt? From what I heard, the flavors on this starter were wonderful, but that touch of “sand” was so off-putting, it came very close to ruining the whole thing.

Another dish that seems to polarize people when they eat at CV is their house specialty, “Polenta Con Sugo Pork Di Maile E Peperoni – Pork Shoulder with spicy peppers, tomato, porcini mushrooms, crispy polenta, breadcrumbs and parmigiano.” The first time I had an RR dinner at Ciao Vito, Leo and Frank both ordered this entree, and neither had liked it, they both found it spicier than they had planned on. In contrast to this, shortly after they joined our group, Heidi and Julian had eaten at Ciao Vito, and told me they were anxious to go back. Julian had ranked the Sugo of Pork one of the best dishes he had tried at a Portland restaurant in a long time.IMG_1457 On this evening, four people ordered the Sugo, three really liking it, and the fourth, Liz, thinking it was good, but just a bit more spicy than she had planned on. I remember when I had tasted Frank’s three years ago, while I wasn’t really overwhelmed by the peppers, the sweet, stewed pork had made me think more of Cuban or other Caribbean than Italian. David loved it though, and ranked Ciao Vito as his second favorite of recent dinners, behind Metrovino, and Barbara seemed to enjoy the pork as well, and found the spiciness about right. Liz probably would have eaten more of hers, but like me, she had gotten quite full before her entree even arrived. She did get the large portion she had left to go though, but unfortunately, in her haste to leave (she was about an hour late meeting friends) her leftovers were left over on the table. Happily for him, they became David’s supplementary leftovers.

Poor Glenda, her dapper (are women dapper? Should that be dappee?) jacket was no match for the entree she selected, as it’s hard enough to neatly eat linguine in public, worse yet, linguine with clams in the shell, all coated in olive oil (Fresh Willapa Bay Manila Clams/Angel Hair Pasta/White Wine/Garlic/Olive Oil/ChiliFlake/Lemon Parsley.)IMG_1456 I would have looked like the Exxon Valdez had been floundering in my area by the time I was finished with this messy bowl of noodles, and in Glenda’s case, she not only finished her main dish about 15-20 minutes behind everyone else, but random grease spots could be seen attaching themselves to her stylish ensemble. She did exhibit great perseverence, however, eating 90% of clams and pasta, largely because I think she found that no matter how messy this affair was, it tasted good.

John was basically sitting in a conversationally void area, at least in relation to my part of the table, so I didn’t hear too many of his opinions on the food he ate.IMG_1454 I did see that his entree was the “Grilled 15 oz Carlton Farms Pork Chop with warm pancetta-lentil salad, sautéed rapini and pork jus. Like the one served at Acadia, this is a really big pork chop, and generally Ciao Vito is wise enough to suggest to people who order it that is would be best if prepared medium rare, so it’s not as dry and tough as shoe leather. A couple of us had this pork chop here about five years ago, (before RR, if that’s possible) as it’s a consistent item on CVs menu, and I remember the reviews were good then.

Heidi and Grace both decided on fish this evening, the “Pan roasted Petrale Sole with broccoli, toasted pine nuts, and butter braised carrots with preserved Meyer lemon.’ Heidi thought the sole was a good value, and relatively tasty, just nothing too out of the ordinary. Grace seemed more lukewarm in her opinion, praising only the broccoli.

In the early days, Fried Razor Clams were a specialty at Ciao Vito, and they always garnered considerable praise. If they had still been on the menu, I certainly would have ordered them, as it’s so hard to make crispy razor clams at home, they are either gummy (usually) or over-cooked and rubbery.IMG_1455 The clams are long gone though (perhaps they’ve burrowed themselves to China by now) so instead I fell back on my old standard, the bovine centered entree. I suppose I felt a bit like I was settling, but this was certainly close to the best beef preparation I have had in 2010, “Grilled Montana Piemontese Shirt Steak with garlic mashed potato puree, roasted crimini mushrooms and a red wine, demi glace.”

As is often the case with skirt steak, the meat was a tad fibrous and not exactly melt in your mouth tender, but the beef was cooked perfectly, the flavor was excellent, and the mushrooms totally tasty. I often don’t enjoy meats cooked in red wine, especially beef, to me they just taste winey, but in this case the sauce was properly reduced to a delicious richness, with only a slightly sweet twinge. It wasn’t gravy and it wasn’t wine sauce, it was beef nectar, and wonderful draped over the creamy potatoes.

At dessert time we went several ways, about half of us ordering something and almost everyone trying somebody’s, if not all of what was floating around. <a href=” href=””&gt;IMG_1461Glenda kept it simple, having the trio of handmade gelato with cookies. This was almost a pint worth of vanilla “ice cream,” and Glenda couldn’t really manage to eat more than half. The cookies, made on the premises and extremely usually flavored, seemed to contain spices like rosemary and thyme (I’d give them mixed reviews, as they also came with what I ordered.

Frank and Grace and Liz both tried the “vanilla bean panna cotta with amarena cherries and balsamic.”IMG_1459 I thought it an interesting choice, as it seemed like Liz mentioned how weird it sounded to have balsamic vinegar on vanilla panna cotta, but then she turned around and ordered it (like I said after the dinner at Castagna, she likes to order with a sense of adventure!) She insisted I taste it, and I was naughty and studiously avoided the balsamic element, but the panna cotta was delicious, so creamy and so vanilla, and it got good reviews at the table.

Julian (I think) had the “Winter pistachio almond crisp with Oregon apples and huckleberries and house maid vanilla gelato.” It seems like a really large portion came toward our direction of the table, so I don’t know if Julian was way too full, or if Frank and Grace got an order too (they could not have ordered only one dessert, could they???!!!) My mind is fading, but I don’t think I tried any of this, as I had already been on a gluttonous rampage all night and knew I was way over-eating without tasting everyone’s dessert and mine.

When I had viewed Ciao Vito’s on-line menu, I made the decision in advance to order the cannoli, as I think it mentioned pistachios, but the actual cannoli that night was chocolate and cherry caramel (cherry caramel???) and as someone who is lukewarm on cherries, I decide to chose something else. As I had loved my salted chocolate dessert so much at Castagna, I decided to try Ciao Vito’s “Bittersweet chocolate and sea salt pot de crème with nocello infused whipped cream and house made cookies.” (Those oddball cookies!!)IMG_1460 Several people had a taste of this, and all thought it quite good. It was good enough, but not excellent, at least compared to what I had at Castagna. My two issues, temperature and texture. Basically the temperature of this pot de creme was room temperature, which just did not seem that desirable, it should have been either warm or chilled. (Preferably chilled.)  Also, the texture of the salted chocolate confection at Castagna had been firm, and perhaps a bit chalky, which was perfect for dark chocolate and salt. This pot de creme was more “pudding like” which just didn’t make it as distinctive. It was fine, just not exceptional.

As occasionally happens with a Restaurant Roulette dinner, they tend to drag on quite a long time (lots of ordering and such with a large group) and by the end, people were getting a tad antsy to leave, as almost three hours can be a long time at a restaurant. I know Liz was at least an hour late for her commitment (to friends, not institution)Frank and Grace were late for the babysitter and Heidi and Julian were trying to get to a birthday party that started at 6:00 (it was almost 10:00) which showed great patience on their part. IMG_1443Unfortunately, there was a great deal of confusion when it was time to pay (much due to me being too much of a ding dong to read the bill correctly) made harder by the fact that they check was hand written, and very long, and compounded because only two people were paying with cash. So it was kind of a nightmare, making people even more anxious to finally leave Ciao Vito behind. So thank you, Julian, for finally noticing that instead of having an embarrassingly small tip, our gratuity was extremely generous, as 18% was already added onto our $609 bill and we were tipping in excess. Thanks also, you folks, who volunteered extra money towards the tip when it looked like we would be short, I’m so glad someone finally figured out that wasn’t necessary.

Although I don’t think it was unanimous, by and large I think this was a really good dinner, except for those gritty mushrooms and the fact that CV just isn’t to everyone’s taste. IMG_1453As always, the service was good, if aloof (and perhaps a teensy bit argumentative). Although Glenda had to order her dessert twice, the various waves of food arrived all in sync, and hot, and everything was attractive and generously portioned (except for a starter or two.) Despite a tad too much spiciness (and sandiness) everyone sitting around me loved their food, and seemed wowed by how large their entrees were for under $20.

Ciao Vito remains a favorite of mine, probably still top ten. When it comes to top five, I have no idea what restaurants I would put there, the only firm choice remains Toro Bravo.  Otherwise, too many wonderful choices. Nowadays, even top 10 is an achievement, as Barbara remarked (she’s from the East Coast, long ago) Portland has become such a great eating destination, and for foodies, it’s an amazing place to live. Just hosting two RR dinners at the same place speaks of a restaurant with a lot of good things going for it, and at this point, a third dinner would not be out of the question (provided myself, Restaurant Roulette, and Ciao Vito make it another three years.)