Yes, Mucca, Not Lucca, And Certainly Not La Buca!

Around a year ago Glenda mentioned visiting a somewhat upscale Italian restaurant downtown, although she struggled with the name and exact location.IMG_3421 She said the food was good, but the prices were on the high side. Then a bit after that, someone else in our group was talking about Mucca, and that they thought it was a worthwhile dinner venue, and it turns out this was the same place Glenda had previously alluded to. Although many of them aren’t great, we have so many Italian restaurants here, I tend to have no trouble finding one to add to our itinerary. For this reason (and the fact that the online menu did seem really expensive for casual Italian) I filed Mucca in the back recesses of my Swiss cheesy brain.

The odd thing about Mucca was that I had never heard of it before. Through daily reading and perserverance, I’m really pretty good at knowing about any decent restaurant that opens in this general area (unless they are in that crazy BeavTigard farther West than downtown area.) I think Mucca has been open about two years, and I’ve never read one reference to the name or any articles tracking their opening or a review of the food. IMG_3425This is really strange. The owner is from Rome, and usually when real Italians come here to open restaurants, someone gets hot and bothered and mentions there is real Italian cooking to be had. The location is certainly not out of the way; long ago, before the “Portland Food Revolution” this block of Morrison between 10th and 11th used to be one of the best for finding an interesting ethnic restaurant (and while this block still has a Persian restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a Lebanese restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, and an Indian restaurant, it’s become rather passe – although a good place to find lunch if you work downtown.) Even the Mucca space, 25 years ago I used to come in here regularly, when I worked downtown, and it was Kent’s Bento (still my favorite bento.) After that, about 15 years ago, I ate at this address  a good number of times, when it was Pasta Veloce, the predecessor to Pastini. The first time I visited the Mucca website I recognized it immediately, the brick East wall and long, narrow space are very distinctive.

According to the Mucca website, here is their origin …

“Rome native, Simone Savaiano, opened Mucca Osteria in the summer of 2011 with the help of his good friend, Pietro Biondi, in downtown Portland, accomplishing his greatest dream of opening an authentic Italian osteria in the U.S. IMG_3412Osteria – derived from the word, “oste,” was a place during the Middle Ages where explorers and traders stopped to refuel and relax, eating well and being taken care of by the host before their long journeys. Today, Italians frequent an osteria to enjoy small, refined menus, good wine, and warm hospitality.

Later they mention that their hope is that when you enter Mucca you feel you are stepping into a quaint Italian Cafe for a casual meal. Having been to Italy, I don’t know how transported I really felt, it was unlikely this was Italy with a light rail train going by the front door, and this could not have been Italy, since I was not drenched by a thunderstorm/downpour before entering (although I must say we did find a pleasant restaurant in Florence after hiding in a doorway during one of the thousands of pelting rain showers.)IMG_3424 Mucca is certainly the nicest yet  incarnation of this well utilized space, probably classed up as much as this tiny, high ceiling location can ever be, and with a decent bar added up in the loft. Still dubious, the linoleum staircase that the servers must endlessly tromp up and down, not the best situation for the still recovering Glenda, it’s relatively steep, and our table was situated up there. She made it though, without tumbling, in both directions.The prices did remind me of Italy (not an inexpensive country.) Sadly, and strangely, of the fancy vacations I’ve had in my life, Italy was the one where we had the least good food. This is not to say that I’m a dumbo who doesn’t recognize good food, this is to say I was a traveler who didn’t have endless funding, so by the time the decent accommodations were paid for, the money left over for food was modest, and in many of the more populated places in Italy, you do best to go to the more expensive restaurants.

By no means are the the prices at Mucca outrageously high, but salads and starters from $9-$15 and modest pasta portions in the upper teens don’t make Mucca a good place to pop in for a cheap little meal. They also have several meat options for a heartier-sized dinner, most landing between $25-$30. They do, at least,  furnish free bread and olive oil. Nowadays, that can knock quite a few dollars off your meal.

Spring was visiting us on this mid-March evening, but several of us were still in our post-Winter layers of clothing, and I must say the loft seating at Mucca gets very warm. IMG_3411Luckily I had an extra layer of clothing I could peel off, but others like Heidi, in relatively warm sweaters, were a bit overly toasty all dinner. Others overheating with us this evening, besides Heidi and Julian (Hank had other plans) included Glenda, David, Shuhong, and new arrival (literally) Yao, Shuhong’s daughter relocating from China. Yao came across as a really nice young woman, and she supplemented my photo taking with her own cell phone shots. In the almost year since she joined us, we’ve finally calmed down Shuhong’s fire breathing taste buds, at least enough that she finds some of our Western food has flavor, but now the long, drawn out process of mouth westernization begins for Yao (she wasn’t enamored with the food at Mucca, not spicy enough.)

Heidi and Glenda and I had some glasses of wine with our meals, but before that David and Glenda had Scotch. Since she introduced him to it at a cocktail gathering at her house, David has often ordered Laphroaig Scotch, one of those old, hoary brands (no, I don’t know what that means either, it just sounded good at the time.) Since Glenda has really been on a Laphroaig lately, I decided I wanted to see what the magical elixir tasted like. IMG_3423As I’ve mentioned before, I can’t tolerate these whiskey sorts of moonshine (bourbon, oh, barf!) and the first time I tasted scotch (when I was around 40) my toes almost disconnected from my feet and tried to shoot across the room. That being said, I try to be open to tasting different liquors (bring them on is my motto!) so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I asked David if I could have a small taste of his scotch when it arrived (and before he doused it with Drambuie) but Glenda took offense at this, wanting to know why I didn’t just ask for a taste of hers. It turns out that Glenda is fine sharing alcohol, just don’t go near her food. Anyway, I poured a modicum in my empty glass for a taste. Now I see why Glenda’s hair is that way! (David just cuts his off before it goes berserk.) Although I now know what Laphroaig tastes like, that unfortunately happens to be the liquid form of licking a campfire then sucking on a rubber boot. Yesh! I guess at least it doesn’t come with a grub inside.

We were presented with two different kinds of bread, which in the beginning I didn’t even notice, as when I saw yeasty goods I got so excited I frantically started grabbing whatever (me want bread!) Each time we got bread, the official olive oil pourer would come along and pour oil on our plate (I think he was also a busboy, as olive oil pourer doesn’t seem like the most lucrative career field.)IMG_3418 Because of all the oil on my plate my bread became doused, and I actually had to eat it with a fork, messy. Heidi commented on how much she liked the focaccia style slices. As Heidi is a vegetarian, I probably should have mentioned to her that the reason I thought the focaccia was so tasty was that it tasted like it had bacon fat poured on top. I had so much bread in my mouth though, that by the time my palate was clear enough to talk, I had forgotten about it until I was writing this. This a a major problem with bacon, it tastes really good, even if you don’t eat meat.

Since it worked out best if I didn’t try to take my usual sort of mid-table seat on this evening, I sat on the far end of the table for this dinner. Consequently, I missed almost all of the comments about the individual dishes at Mucca. I also am not totally sure what Julian ordered, except I know it was an half chicken sort of affair (well, not affair, Julian behaved perfectly gentlemanly toward his fowl.) So instead of my usual blah, blah, blah (burp) this time out I am giving you only Mucca’s descriptions of the food. Those are ….. IMG_3416

Mixed Cheese Plate (okay, that’s my lifeless description.)

Insalatina di Pere, Noci e Gorgonzola organic mixed greens, Gorgonzola, walnuts, fresh local pears

Parsnip Soup

Cavatelli rustici con Speck e crema di Taleggioshell pasta, smoked ham, Taleggio cheese fondue

Tagliatelle con Salsiccia, Pancetta e salsa allo Zafferanoegg tagliatelle pasta, pork belly, sausages, Saffron sauce

Risotto with beets and gorgonzola

Pappardelle al Cinghialeegg pappardelle pasta, slow braised wild boar ragù

Bistecca alla Fiorentina 18 oz. Prime Porterhouse, herbed sea salt, roasted potatoes and spinach.


Here is the limp collection of comments I have on the food. Several of us had the salad of gorgonzola, walnuts, and fresh pears, and I think we all enjoyed it. Heidi had the beet risotto, which was an amazing bright magenta color. IMG_3420She said it was really very good, but she had filled herself up on the cheese plate, and couldn’t squeeze the entire portion into her internal food locker. David and I both had the shell pasta (Annie’s goes upscale!) with smoked ham and cream sauce, and we both thought it a nice combination. You have to like a pasta where the sauce is referred to as fondue, you know it’s got to be extra rich and naughty. I think Shuhong might have had the pork belly pasta with saffron sauce and Yao the wild boar pasta, but it could be it was the other way around. Whomever had whatever, as I mentioned before, Shuhong liked her pasta, but Yao, not so much. We’ve finally gotten Shuhong’s palate calmed down enough that she appreciates a rich and flavorful Italian pasta dish (we’re working on one country’s food at a time) but now we have to start getting this Yao character whipped into shape, at least if she is ever to enjoy non-Asian food here.

IMG_3422Glenda was making all sorts of lip-smacking happy sounds once she dug into her big and beautiful steak, a really thick little bone-in cut, cooked perfectly. I was pretty jealous, but I had been eating beef all week long, having made a large hunk in my wood pellet grill over the previous weekend. So I had vowed I would give my colon a rest (and most certainly my wallet, the Bistecca wasn’t cheap.) Anyway, Glenda said all of her food was delicious this evening.

IMG_3427I am a person with mixed feelings about Tiramisu. Since I don’t enjoy coffee, I tend to prefer those renditions where the coffee is more subtle, not the dominant flavor. (Probably the less authentic versions.) The tiramisu I’ve always enjoyed was at the ever modest La Buca on NE 28th. The Mucca tiramisu had a really intense coffee topping, so while it wasn’t my favorite, Heidi and Glenda both enjoyed it. What can I say, I tend to get bummed when people load their coffee desserts down with real coffee flavor.

The service was excellent, but I would have to imagine the servers get pretty tired carrying all the heavy plates of food up and down this rather proletariat staircase day in and day out. Also, I wonder how many drinks have been unintentionally tossed before they even get to the people who are supposed to receive them. Of course this is coming from a really clumsy person perspective, so maybe normal people never trip and smash drinks and fling plates of food.

IMG_3428We all agreed that while the prices at Mucca were definitely above average for mid-range Portland Italian food, the food was well executed, of really high quality, and appeared more authentically rustically Italian (opposed to East Coast, old fashioned Italian) than the average Italian joint here. Although many of the ingredients were fresh Northwest, the style of cooking was completely Italy (not to mention the tongue twisting names.) There was no beautiful Duomo outside the door to tour, no racing scooters to run you over, and this night the thundershowers kept at bay, but at least the food said “welcome to Italy.”