The Dining Report – Carpaccio Trattoria

I’ll Take A Large Order Of Our Waiter, To Go.

CLOSED

The last time Restaurant Roulette visited a Venetian Inspired Portland restaurant (Fratelli) I talked a bit about my one trip to Italy, and how in Venice we had some pretty lousy food, mainly because in Venice, to get good food in a nice restaurant, you need to shell out those big bucks. Our big bucks were spent on halfway “decent lodgings” (good location, on the Grand Canal by the Rialto Bridge, very small hotel room with rather too busy blue and white floral wallpaper, but nice and clean.) When you are in Venice in the late summer, who needs a gorgeous hotel room, you should be spending all your waking hours walking around, getting lost,  and looking at everything you can possibly see in your limited timeline.

So far, since the mixed use brick building on the intersection of MLK and Fremont was built, the corner space has not had too much luck (I can’t say how the Subway next door has done.) IMG_3072The first place that opened, Terrior, was by someone who was big on the local food scene about 6 years ago. This was before our “food explosion” here, and now I can’t remember his name, but when Terrior opened it was initially well regarded for its high end small plate menu. It soon fell into financial difficulty, however, and I seem to remember the owner skulking off in the middle of the night without paying lots of people, especially employees. After the space sat vacant for a bit, Belly opened, run by a really sweet couple, whom I’m sure, everyone who met them wanted to succeed. We had a dinner there, the staff was nice, the menu was accessible (sort of NW/American/Italian) the prices were reasonable, the portions were large, and the food was good. Perhaps Belly lacked distinction, or focus, or whatever it takes to draw patrons to this rather desolate corner, so after three years, they also had to throw in the towel.

Once again, the space was empty for quite a few months. Then, without much fanfare, a chef from Venice, Francesco Solda, decided he would give this rather long and angular space with the big bar area a whirl, naming it Carpaccio Trattoria.IMG_3056 Until this week, I don’t think I’ve read anything about this restaurant anywhere, but according to the Willamette Week from August 8th, CT has been a big neighborhood hit with their generous and late going happy hour, and WW are predicting that this might be the restaurant to break the curse at this address. Let’s just hope the generous happy hour and the expansive coupon someone brought to this dinner don’t spell a financial demise somewhere down the road. The profit margin in restaurants is exceedingly small, so unless you are incredibly popular (Toro Bravo, Screen Door, T N’ S, or Ox popular) you can’t be giving too many of your goods and services away and not be taking a major hit.)

Let’s not start predicting bad things ahead though, after all, CT (sadly, I’m already tired of typing Carpaccio Trattoria, especially since it’s not easy to spell to begin with) just opened, and the place seems once again filled with nice people. Let’s predict good things ahead, once they get their word around town and distinguish themselves from some of the other new Italian joints we’ve seen open in Portland in the last year (the trend the year before in Portland was French Bistro, this year we’re seeing Italian restaurants everywhere, especially those based around wood fired ovens. Interestingly, the CT space has a wood fired oven left over from previous tenants, but no pizza. This might be a good thing, the pizza I had in Venice was ghastly, hard crust and nothing especially tasty on top. It appears like good pizza comes from now South.)

There were eight of us plus “infant” for this dinner, not bad for prime summer vacation season. Since I had been to this rather weird commercial development in the middle of this otherwise bleak intersection before, I knew to look around back to see if any spaces were available in the tiny parking lot. Sure enough, SCORE! One space. (The building has upstairs housing, which I think has underground parking, but also shares the lot with Subway and a clinic of some kind next door.) Everyone else parked all over the place, including Heidi and Julian, who parked at the impromptu “parking lot” across Fremont, which is basically an empty field that no developer has yet purchased. (I think maybe  the buildings were torn down after they were torched during Portland’s “race riot days”, so many of these lots along MLK have been barren for quite some time.)

Belly had sort of pastel decor, but TC is more terra cotta rusts and richer colors, with an assortment of “italian decor” picked up here and there, like the map that was titled “ancient map of Italy” or some such thing denoting the territorial boundaries, not the age of the map itself. IMG_3055It was a nice summer day, so there were quite a few people having happy hour outside, so the dining room was about half full. My only complaint about the surroundings was that we were not overly far from the bar, and I could see the TV, which trashes out any dining room as far as I’m concerned. The opening ceremonies of the Olympics were on, which I suppose could have been an excuse, but a TV in the dining area is a TV in the dining area, tacky. Our waiter was absolutely adorable, a sweet young Italian fellow with a strong but understandable accent (the way he said pineapple was incredible) well fitting jeans, and a great love for babies (he was fawning over Hank all evening.) His most constant phrase was “whatever you like.” I know, that sounds like some sort of cheesy stereotype, but believe me, he came across as both genuine and professional. Cora asked him where he was from, and he ran to the “Ancient Map of Italy” to show us he was from way down south, Sorrento I think he said (wow, makes me bummed I never got further South in Italy than Rome, if this is what those Southern Italian men are like.) Cora said sometime during the evening (not when the waiter was around) that she thought it would be great to have an “Italian lover” to which Glenda replied that she would be fine with “any lover”. Any volunteers? David, perhaps having a rough week at work and yearning for new things, said “why would anyone move from Italy to here?” Hey bub, haven’t you heard of the “American Dream?” Okay, that gagged me too. I did mention that although is many ways the rustic Italian life seemed like an ideal situation, that there were many issues in Italy with government, and poverty, and that their economy wasn’t exactly wowing Europe, and that some areas were probably too sleepy and rural for young folk. Besides, where would you find a Rusty Nail in downtown Donkey Cart Village? Many of the areas in Central Italy, around Tuscany, there’s hardly anything but a church and a big tree. Who knows what the day-to-day, non tourist conditions are like down South. There could be a volcano erupting on you at any second.

The wine list by the glass was actually relatively small, not really featuring Italian wines, so whomever wanted a glass of Italian styled red had Chianti.IMG_3050 The bar was relatively average, so didn’t have Drambuie or David’s favorite scotches. He did find a scotch he liked though and whipped out his airliner sized bottle of Drambuie, something we’ve been seeing quite often lately. I feel lucky that I’m a more flexible drinker and don’t have to carry items around like a mortar, pestle, and mint bushes. I had one of the cocktails off the specialty menu, Afternoon in Venice, or something like that, and it had a pleasing yellow/green color and smooth, somewhat citrus based flavor. One thing I must note, although the selection of wines and beers wasn’t overly gigantic, they were reasonably priced, my drink being $6-$7, and the glass wines being $7 too.

IMG_3058Also, in a gesture that surely pleases all gluttonous wheat gobblers like ourselves, Carpaccio was very generous with the complimentary bread, bringing three good sized baskets complete with a somewhat zingy sun dried tomato based tapenade, which got mixed reviews at our table. I thought it was relatively good, although is typical of tapenade, a tad oily. Someone, perhaps David, said he didn’t care for it overly. Although I didn’t hear her singing its praises, I did see Shouhong dump some over her entree later, which might not have been the ideal situation, as she was about to trade it with David for his entree, and he didn’t seem too enamored with having oily sun-dried tomatoes over fish.

Sam was  really anxious to have someone go in with her to order the Burrata (Burrata, Roasted Pancetta, Basil, Tomato) which was sort of like a big white cheese ball, and eventually David agreed, so that was passed around the table many, many times. IMG_3063It was tasty for sure. Everyone but me began with a salad, and while I would have liked a salad, I had my heart set on another starter that was quite expensive, and my budget wouldn’t allow both (and with the size of the other starter, I didn’t need both.) Glenda began her meal by having the Tuscan Fava Bean Salad with Pear, Fennel and Pecorino. Like the majority of food plated at Carpaccio Trattoria, this was very pretty when delivered. Unfortunately, Glenda said it was a bit on the blase side, too muted in flavors to really be enjoyed. You chewed rather than savored.

Lots of Caesar salads were ordered, which is pretty typical of our group. Despite how many salads were ordered, I don’t remember too many comments being made. I think someone commented that there were actual anchovies mixed in, not just anchovy paste, somewhat unusual around these parts. Shouhong had the third salad on the menu at David’s suggestion, Mixed Greens, Asiago, and Candied Walnuts. I sat right next to her, but she’s relatively quiet, so I didn’t hear too much feedback. I did get the impression she thought this was a better salad than the Caesars, perhaps because she preferred the dressing.

Okay, reading the comments on those salads, I’m getting the impression that I was really falling down on the job this dinner and not asking people what they thought of their food (yes, it does make for a relaxing meal, taking photos of all items and some people, badgering everyone over what they think about what they are eating, and also trying to consume my own grub in a somewhat timely fashion.) IMG_3074I think I’ll blame my inattention on Hank, that screaming infant!! (NOT) Actually, I think I can blame some of my inattention on Hank, but only because he was so cute, good-natured, and totally well-behaved. We haven’t seen “our little man” for several months now, not since Spring, and these days he’s something like 11 months old (yes, I know the official infant/toddler age is generally calculated in weeks, but that’s too hard for non-parent types like myself) and he had changed so much since the last time we saw him, it was hard to not be transfixed by his person. This time Hank had an actual hairdo (courtesy of Julian’s hairdressing skills) a big grin, and was really incredibly endearing, not to mention a spitting image of mom and dad. No wonder the waiter kept gravitating his way.

Although she had some doubts, as many, many eateries overcook their squid to rubberocity, Cora still took a chance and ordered the Whole Squid with Escarole Cream and Crostini. There was a whole lot of it, a good-sized sized squid, and she definitely found it delicious and totally tender.

When I was in central Italy, I remember we ate several mixed seafood plates, both cooked and raw. I especially remember this gigantic seafood plate we had in Orbetello, a rather weird Tuscan coastal town (actually a strip of land between two lagoons and hooked to a wealthy resort island) where we stayed a couple of nights (not too exciting or rustic, I would skip Orbetello if I was you, although it did have a nice, modern looking park area on the water.)IMG_3066 Part of the problem with Orbetello was that it was noisy at night, as there was a theater right by our hotel and an old church with bells ringing at every unpleasant hour. Anyway, right across from the cathedral was a little family run establishment where we had lunch. These were not the most welcoming of Italians, the whole family slouching around the restaurant in baggy clothes and flip flops without the slightest aura of friendliness toward us stupid, non-native tourists, but they did serve these gigantic, fresh, mixed seafood platters that were an incredible value, something like the equivalent of $10 for like 3 lbs. of seafood, cooked and raw. Delicious.

Since this trip, I have loved mixed seafood platters, although they are never as varied or affordable here (the one at Ringside Fish House is like $75. Ox did have some sort of mixed seafood starter for $28 though, but no one got it so that I could see how big it was.) Often “authentic” Italian restaurants here have mixed seafood starters (Frito Mixto) that are a good deal. IMG_3053 Gilda’s Italian restaurant by Timber’s Stadium had a really tasty, deep fried seafood combo when we dined there in 2011, and while it was around $14, it was enough for about 4 people. I must say the most varied Frito Mixto I’ve seen had to be the one at Carpaccio, Fried Calamari, Shrimp, Sea Scallops, Eel, Smelt, Zucchini, Eggplant, Dates, and Lemon. When I ordered it I assumed that the zucchini, eggplant, dates and lemon were going to be garnishes, but amazingly, everything was breaded and deep friend together, so much so that it was often hard to know what I was eating. The deep fried dates were particularly interesting, especially as i no longer had the menu and couldn’t at first figure out what was sticking to my teeth. Obviously, with so many different items, this was a good sized starter, another portion that would be fine for four. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seem smelt on any menu here, even if they are local, which makes me wonder if they are a Venetian specialty (I don’t know how tasty lagoon smelt sounds after smelling a few of those canals.)

Since I didn’t have a salad like everyone else, and only had a couple bites of the Burrata, I was starving by the time this arrived, and dug in with gusto. I didn’t remember what all was part of the whole package though. so before remembering I grabbed various items and shoved them into my mouth, one after another (kind of like the way I always eat.)IMG_3065 I totally forgot about the smelt, which were cut through the bone (like salmon steaks) not parallel to the bones. When I was growing up my father liked smelt, so I’ve had my share of them, and I know you can eat the bones when they are fried. That being said, when they are cut up this way, the spine ends up being a hard little rock of bone in the center, and just randomly chomping down on it can be somewhat hard on “over 30” molars, in fact, relatively painful. So I tried to be more careful after that, having seen someone’s tooth fall out at an early RR dinner and knowing it wasn’t exactly a highlight of the evening, especially seeing the dead tooth corpse there on a napkin, on the table, all evening. Aside from dental destruction issues, everything tasted good though, and I passed the platter around the table a few times for all interested takers.

A specialty at Carpaccio Trattoria is risotto, they have like five of them, including a version featuring Squid Ink, a Venice staple (well, maybe not staple. Could squid ink anything be a staple of anyone’s diet, unless of course you are a squid?) That being said, no one was in a risotto mood, so sadly, we did not have the house specialty this evening. Here’s what we did have for main courses ….

Orecchiette Pasta, Italian Hot Sausage, Broccoli Rabe – Although I had not read anything about CT until after the dinner, this seems to be their house pasta, as several people mentioned it on Yelp.IMG_3069 I guess David has not had “little ear” pasta before, because he seemed disarmed by the chewy nature of these bulky little grain shapes. Also, knowing David, when he read Italian Hot Sausage, he was probably hoping for tongue-whoppingly, burningly hot, which is highly unlikely at an Italian restaurant. He ate a few bites and seemed okay with it, but when Shouhong asked to trade entrees with him, he didn’t seem to devastatingly upset.

Salmon, Cream of Potatoes, Local Asparagus – This was Shouhong’s original entree.IMG_3068 Perhaps because the salmon was close to a rare preparation, Shuhong asked David if they could switch, so he ate about 70% of her order, while she ate his pasta. I think he thought it was fine, but also commented that the salmon was too rare for him to fully enjoy. Heidi ordered this as well and thought it was really good, but she stressed that she had requested that the fish be cooked all the way through. This made me think that the waiter must have asked her if a medium rare preparation was okay, otherwise how would she have known to have it cooked a bit more? The average restaurant here cooks it all the way through.

Carbonara, Pancetta, Cream, Wide Noodles – This was the night’s pasta special, and Cora ordered it. IMG_3071She said she loves carbonara, but this was not at all what she had been expecting (perhaps Venetian is different that what we usually have here.) She said this version was lacking a creamy texture, and the noodles were certainly extremely wide. Also, if you are used to bacon hunks, larger slices of the more ham looking pancetta would probably be alien. Unfortunately, Cora was quite disappointed, and didn’t even want to take the Carbonara home in a doggy box. It didn’t go to waste, however, as Sam said she had a starving housemate who will eat anything free. Cora was also pretty full from her previous order of the very generously portioned squid, so she didn’t exactly go home hungry (although she did go home arguing with Sam. Those girls!)

Fresh Beets Pasta,Clams, Wild Mushrooms, Garlic Pasta – This is what Sam ordered. It looked really clammy. Sam had a coupon for 50% off this evening, and although the waiter showed a bit of reluctance, he said yes they would accept it. Consequently, she ended up getting $30 off, a really good bargain. Maybe she was counting her blessings and decided she would be happy with all the food she was served.

Farm Raised Chicken, Fingerling Potatoes, Rosemary Oil – I think Julian liked it. He seemed happy and ate most everything on his plate (okay, not the bones.) As I’ve said about Julian before, he’s a quiet eater and doesn’t comment of what he’s eating too often, unless he’s confronted about it or ecstatic. Also, he and Heidi usually trade off on entertaining Hank, so when it is their eating time, they probably get down to business and get it done.

Flat Steak, Arugula, Balsamic Cherry Tomatoes, Baby Carrots – Two people ordered this beef entree, me being one of them, and I still forgot to get a picture of it. Something really distracting must have happened about then (maybe Sam was thrusting her bosoms toward the camera again.IMG_3073 Oh, how I miss those bulky winter sweaters!) Anyway, it’s too bad that I forgot the photo, as it was a really prettily arranged plate, perhaps the nicest all night. Glenda seemed to think the steak was pleasant, and the accompanying vegetables nice, and I heard her make her happy eating noise a couple of times. The people around the table whom I gave samples of steak also thought it was good, and luckily both Shouhong and Sam didn’t mind eating my cherry tomatoes, as I’m not a fan, especially if they are cooked. I think my major issue with this beef wasn’t really an issue with this beef at all, it was that the last steak I had was at Ox, that beautiful, charred, naturally flavored Rib Eye I ordered,  a steak which left almost nothing to be desired. How could this poor “flat steak” compare with that? There are so many of these less expensive cuts of beef around these days, I’m not totally certain which one this might have been, maybe flat-iron steak? I didn’t even find the meat deficient in any particular way, except perhaps for a lack of marbling. My major problem was that I did not enjoy the sauce, which largely came from the Balsamic Cherry Tomatoes, I’m so-so when it comes to balsamic vinegar, I like it only in very limited quantities, so the tangy, bitter quality was not one I found suited to my palette or the beef. That’s mainly personal preference though, and this was about half the price of my meat at Ox.

The dessert selection at Carpaccio Trattoria is tiny, maybe only two items plus some homemade gelato flavors  (this is when the waiter mentioned pineapple.)IMG_3078 I really need to work on having more will power and not ordering dessert if I don’t see anything irresistible. Since everything here was less expensive than the last few dinners we’ve had though, it was hard for me not to go the full course. So I had the Tiramisu (Venetian Style) even though I’m only so-so on this dessert (not enjoying coffee has much to do with it.) This was indeed a different style than we are used to here, more like a big pudding/parfait thing, than cake. Once again, no matter what shape it came it, I was still rather ambivalent. I do think Glenda, a big tiramisu fan, really liked hers though, and everyone around the table found it delicious. Sam had a very unusual dessert, Tortino di Mele Verdi Caramellate al Rosmarino  with Lemon Sorbet and Vanilla Sauce. I’m not sure how someone manages to concoct a dessert with ingredients like caramel, rosemary, lemon and vanilla sauce, but Sam was blown away by the complexity and recommended it whole-heartedly.

I think we all pretty much agreed that while we liked the restaurant, the atmosphere, and certainly the staff, none of us had a meal that was a knock out from beginning to end at Carpaccio Trattoria, typical of Italian dining in Portland.IMG_3077 I still hark back to those early days of Assaggio as some of the best Italian food Portland has ever had, especially if you liked lots of pastas to select from and a generous assortment of small plate starters. It’s really sad that that place was sold and soon after self-destructed after several shining years (the original Assaggio owners opened Cork Wine Shop on Alberta a number of years ago.) Many of Portland’s nicer Italian places do several things well, but it’s hard to think of any that do everything well. This is also the case with Carpaccio Trattoria. Being a Venetian restaurant, many of the preparations are a bit different than we are used to, and while many are very good, some don’t seem as tasty as the Italian fare from other Italian regions. Venice is known for incredible atmosphere and wonderful history, not necessarily the best cooking Italy has to offer. I applaud Mr. Solda for bringing more Venetian food our way, however, I’m just not sure if Venetian food will inspire masses of patrons to flock through the door, especially with a menu having only  2-3 pasta dishes (us goofy Americans love our noodles.) It does sound like CT is getting the happy hour thing right, and bringing a good amount of people through their doors that way, so that’s a start. Let’s hope once fall arrives that a healthy amount of people move into the main dining area and check out some of the more substantial things Carpaccio Trattoria has to offer, as someone certainly deserves to bring this odd location into the winner’s column.

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