Italian escape

The best of Milan in Portland
By BRIAN DUFF  |  July 15, 2009

rav main
  PILLOWS OF FLAVOR Paciarino's ravioli with goat cheese al Pomodoro.

One of my earliest culinary memories is of my father bringing home a tin of hard, crisp, almondy Italian cookies. As my sisters and I ate, my father dimmed the lights and put a match to the thin paper wrappers. They began to float like enchanted lanterns. I thought these Italians must be magical. But on my first visit to Italy I went to Milan. There is little magical about Milan, perhaps Italy's least charming city. I was eager to leave, but I thought those cookies were Milanese, so I looked for them. Finally I discovered they were made outside Milan — it is in fact a cookie invented specifically to celebrate leaving Milan for the beauty of the countryside nearby.

PACIARINO | 468 Fore St, Portland | store open 9:30 am; lunch Mon-Sat 11:30 am-2:30 pm; dinner Wed-Sat 6-9 pm | wine only | Visa/MC/Amex/Disc | 207.774.3500 | paciarino.com 

So escaping Milan, and celebrating with food, is an old tradition. Portland is its most recent beneficiary. The couple that runs Paciarino moved here from Milan last year, began by selling fresh pastas and sauces, and started serving dinners a few months ago. In the spirit of escaping Milan, their restaurant and its cuisine have little in common with their native city. Milan is sleek and image-obsessed. Its food favors butter and rice over pasta and olive oil. But Paciarino has a modest rustic charm and a skill with pasta worthy of Italy's more southern, more welcoming regions.

With its open industrial kitchen, track lights, and yellow-painted brick, Paciarino is not exactly elegant, but it looks nice by candlelight and the colors are warm. The service is attentive and engaging, and it's impossible not to be charmed by the owners or the grandmotherly Italian woman who cleared our plates between courses.

A crostini appetizer allows you to try many of the house-made sauces they sell from their kitchen. The best were a bright red-orange pepper with a sharp initial spice that gave way to sweetness, an artichoke spread that was resonant with the taste of rich olive oil, and a simple spread made from salty dark olives. They deserved a better bread than what they came with, which seemed sliced from a baguette less interesting than the crusty, chewy table bread we had been dipping in oil. A pair of tortas had a flakey, light crust. One had a blended filling of cauliflower and sweet olive oil, while the other, made with carrots, was crunchier and heartier.

Pastas are the house specialty and they do not disappoint. A cannelloni di magro offered thin pasta wrapped around spinach and ricotta. It was all doused in a béchamel, a notoriously difficult sauce that was expertly executed — creamy and rich without a hint of the lumps, graininess, gumminess, or flour taste sometimes found in lesser versions. A thicker pasta with more bite might have given a mushy dish more textural contrast. But the vegetal flavor of fresh spinach held its own through all the sauce.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: What would Joan do?, In with the new, Eat your way through 2011 at these 11 places not to miss, More more >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle, Food and Cooking, Cheese,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY BRIAN DUFF
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   GIVE 'EM A HAND  |  April 10, 2014
    Pocket-sized comfort foods
  •   EXTREME LOCALISM  |  March 19, 2014
    Perhaps Vinland’s pontifications become white noise, which fades away as you appreciate the food and its distinctive coherence of flavors and textures — the Nordic, astringent, piney, ascetic goodness of it all.
  •   DISTINCTIVE SUBURBAN DINING  |  March 14, 2014
    It is the rare chef, for example, who can make ordering the “veggie plate” seem like a good idea in retrospect — but the one at Oscar’s was fantastic, with a great mix of colors and textures.
  •   CRACKING OUR HARD EXTERIORS  |  February 27, 2014
    These days it is mollusks like oysters, mussels, and clams (rather than crustaceous shellfish, like lobster, crab, and shrimp) that best represent our collective emotional temperament. 
  •   THE SPICE OF LIFE (AND DEATH)  |  February 12, 2014
    In our reverence for herbs and spices  we should detect our contempt for the blander staple ingredients they are often meant to enliven.

 See all articles by: BRIAN DUFF