Review: Sal’s Famous Italian Kitchen

When I was a starving student in the San Francisco area, I used to spend a lot of time exploring the city. It seemed every few blocks there were places named Joes’: New Joe’s, Old Joe’s, Original Joes. Late one night, I was desperate for a meal and wandered inside New Joe’s. All the Joe’s seem to be comfortable throwbacks to east-coast interpretation of Italian food, and I ended up going back many times. It has been years since I’ve ventured into Joe’s, but Sal’s Famous Italian Kitchen brought the memories rushing back.

“Americanized” Italian is different from anything you are likely to find in Italy. Portions are huge; sauces are heavy, plentiful, and usually over-loaded with ingredients. Real Italian food is not spaghetti and meatballs; as a matter of fact, that is a difficult dish to find in Italy. Instead, this style of cooking was developed by Italian immigrants, trying to make do without the traditional ingredients from their home country, and wanting to stand out from the rest of the pack. Most early Italian immigrants came from southern parts of the country, where the cooking tends more towards red sauces and seafood, rather than the diversified, regional cooking of the country as a whole. For instance, in Italy spaghetti carbonara would never be made with cream; this is strictly an American interpretation. Sauces are always used in far heavier amounts than in Italian versions. That being said, there is nothing wrong with American-Italian, you just need to know that it’s not ‘real’ Italian food.

The NW Portland location has opened in the old Foothill Broiler space in the Uptown shopping center. If you have been to the old burger space, prepare for a surprise. The new location has been completely redone in a trendy, modern style, with low-voltage lights, warm wall tones, a huge wine rack, dark hardwood floors – all rather upscale compared to (now closed) Sal’s in north Portland, but still with the little touches that remind you of its roots – wine in carafes, a pitcher of ice water on each table, and the same menu, though it seems prices are (logically, considering the location) slightly higher.

Sal’s Famous Italian does not pretend to be gourmet, but rather, nostalgic. The menu is full of hearty dishes that emphasize the sauces and comfort food you may have had as a kid. Focaccia with olive oil is brought to your table while you make your dining decisions. Eleven starters are available, everything from a house salad with mushrooms, carrots, and candied walnuts ($4.00), Caesar with anchovies and Parmigiano ($5.00), shrimp and crab Louie ($12.75), fried calamari with marinara ($8.00), to steamed mussels with garlic and white wine ($9.25). Salads are large; the small size is easily big enough for two.

Their version of the Caesar consisting of full spears of romaine hearts generally satisfies. The flavors are mild, though sometimes a bit unbalanced by too much lemon, or suffering from the leaves being sloppily separated leaving a dry core, but still, just fine for $5.00. At first the house salad seems a throwback to the 60’s with carrots, fresh mushrooms, and onions, but then updated, with candied walnuts ($4.00). I liked the arugula and roasted beet salad best, loaded with sweet red beets, and little dots of goat cheese, as well as candied walnuts; lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon ($7.00).

Since Sal’s is owned by the folks behind Pizzicato, it makes sense that pizza is offered here, a basic Napolitano for $8.25. It is thin crust in the New York style, with tomato sauce, garlic, pecorino Romano and a decent mozzarella. A large selection of additional toppings is available for $1.50-2.00 each, the menu correctly admonishing to “keep it simple”. If you exercise restraint, the resulting pizza is fairly crisp, better than most. The tomato sauce is particularly good.

The bulk of the menu is made up with pasta dishes. Pretty much everything is what you would expect, nice large portions and strong flavors. Fettuccine carbonara is loaded with pancetta, eggs, cream, onions, and black pepper; creamy comfort food ($11.25). The puttanesca with chopped tomatoes, olives, olive oil, capers, anchovies, and hot pepper is surprisingly piquant with lots of bright flavors, just as it should be ($9.25). Sal’s ‘famous’ ragu has thick pappardelle pasta in a meaty tomato sauce, with onions and garlic, with just a hint of spice ($10.75). The pesto pasta is only okay, you can do better, though the price is right at $9.00. I’ve had better, and worse. Pasta amatriciana has a slightly spicy, long finish. It is loaded with salty chopped pancetta, garlic, and onions. The portion is large enough to fill just about anyone, pasta cooked correctly ($11.00).

Another evening, a salmon fillet nestled over bow tie pasta with a tomato cream sauce was excellent, the salmon moist and full of flavor, not overwhelmed but complimented by the sauce and caramelized onions ($12.50). My companions enjoyed a green pappardelle with a wild mushroom and tomato-cream sauce, which was comforting during the cold winds last week. The pasta had a nice fresh flavor; there were lots of mushrooms and everything was balanced ($10.75). They also tried the eggplant Parmesan and found it to be classic east coast; good thick slices of eggplant, over-breaded, lots of sauce. The only drawback was the accompanying spinach cooled quickly and had picked up a somewhat off flavor from the sauté ($10.50). Finally, the expected spaghetti with pork and beef meatballs the size of your fist; this is just like you would expect an Italian grandmother to make for Sunday dinner ($10.00).

Service is generally very good; when quizzed, the servers are knowledgeable about the ingredients. My only quibble is on the timing from the kitchen. The Uptown branch tends to send things out too quickly, making you feel rushed; the N Portland branch can get a little backed up on busy nights.

A full bar is available. The wine list is larger than you might expect, markup very reasonable. I’m not sure what their house wine is, but you can get a very drinkable half-carafe for $7.50, served in the requisite tumblers (bottles come with better glasses). There is a large list of wines by-the-glass for $5.00-$8.00.

It is hard to review Sal’s without making a comparison to Balvo. Overall, food is cheaper, more consistent, and comes in larger portions. Right now, it is a better deal for your money.

Taking into account what they are setting out to accomplish, 2.5 stars. Recommended if you are into American-Italian food. Put on some Louie Prima to get in the mood, have a carafe of wine, and enjoy yourself.

  • Phone: (503) 467-4067
  • Address: 33 NW 23rd Place in the Uptown Shopping Center, Portland, OR. 97210 Google Map
  • Hours: Mon-Thu 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat 11am-10pm; Sun 12pm-9pm
  • Website: SalsKitchen.com

Sal's Famous Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Jeff says

    Glad to hear someone out there in the Portland food blogosphere appreciates Sal’s. I’ve given Mama Mia several chances but for me Sal’s just has them beat in almost every way except red velvet decor. I have to think the early praise for MM and general thumbs down given to Sal’s had to be based on some sort of “Lisa Schroeder => good; Pizzicato => bad” preconception.

    My favorites that you didn’t mention are the antipasto platter, and the linguini ai gamberetti, which is the only linguine and shrimp dish I’ve had in Portland that wasn’t overwhelmed with tomato sauce. Love the infinite supply of focaccia too…

  2. says

    Thanks for reviewing this place. I’m a big Pizzicato guy so I’ve been excited to give it a try but we’re almost never in the neighborhood and when we are we have the kids in tow (though my 22-month old can say “olive oil” precisely because of his love for the Pizzicato focaccia and dipping oil). Is either location reasonably kid-friendly or is this adult food?

  3. Food Dude says

    S: I think they would be kid friendly as long as the children are well behaved – especially at lunch. They get a bit crowded in the evenings.

    septembergirl, thanks for mentioning the breakfast. I’d missed that.

  4. septembergrl says

    Uptown Sal’s is a breakfast favorite in our house. Much better in all respects than the nearby Cameo or the revamped Sammy’s. Outstanding coffee and potatoes, just a little too much food for breakfast, though.

  5. Food Dude says

    KevinS: I have a very hard time with stairs myself, so tend to notice them. I don’t remember stairs at either Sal’s. I think there is a curb-cut at the NW Location as long as you don’t come from the Ben & Jerry’s. I’ll try to go by there tomorrow and check. In the meantime, maybe the owner or someone familiar with Sal’s will comment.

    Interestingly enough, I’ve been thinking about whether I should include if the restaurants are handicapped accessible. I will try to include it from now on, and will go back and update other reviews with the information. Give me a month, and you will be able to use the drill-down search function to find accessible places.

  6. Food Dude says

    Nancy: They have a fresh butternut squash ravioli, in browned butter, walnuts, & crisp sage for $11.75. I haven’t tried it, but a good brown-butter sauce is a wonderful thing.

  7. KevinS says

    I’d like to try Sal’s (Uptown) after reading this.

    What can anyone tell me about the handicapped friendliness at Sal’s (Uptown) for a person in a wheelchair. I don’t mean the restaurant so much as the shopping center itself. I’m pretty sure I’ve been in the Foothil Broiler space in the past and wouldn’t expect a problem. But I do recall lots of steps (e.g., next to Phil’s, coming from the rear parking lot and down by the ice cream place). I don’t recall much in the way of ramps. My usual transportation is by cab, so I thought I’d have the cab pull into the front parking lot to unload and then deal with the (hopefully) one step up to the sidewalk in front of Sal’s. However, I remember parking being tight such that there is limited room to negotiate the chair between parked cars. Okay, you’ve got the picture.

    Thanks!

  8. Food Dude says

    Kevin S: dropped by today. There is handicapped parking just to the left of the front door, complete with a curb cut. Doesn’t look like you’ll have any trouble getting in.

  9. Erin says

    Sal’s plates of pasta sound yummy, thanks for the tip.

    One of the things I used to love about Original Joe’s when I lived in SF were the non-pasta options. Great burgers, even better chops roasted in the wood-burning oven. And for late night, soothing and simple pastina or the eggy, spinachy, meaty Joe’s Special always hit the spot.

    Any tips for this kind of chow?

  10. Kristi says

    Thanks for the review! I’ve been wanting to try Sal’s ever since they opened in NW but I hadn’t heard much about the quality of the food. We will definitely have to give it a try now.

    Kristi

  11. Bob Grace says

    I remember well the New Joes on Broadway in S.F. one of my favorites. Did you ever get to Lupos on Kearny ?
    Can’t wait to try Sal’s, was disapointed with Mama Mia.

  12. B.G. says

    Just tried the NW Sal’s. Had a pleasant dining experience.Nice ambiance, good service, and the food was I thought excellent. Had the calamari, which was enough to be an entree, tender, crab cakes a bit over cooked but still good,eggplant parmesan,good and enough for two. Reasonable prices, will be back.Beats the heck out of Mama Mia

  13. Gumby says

    I have a little soft spot for Sal’s. When you want something decent and affordable in a pinch. My absolute all time fave dish is the butternut squash ravioli, with just the right amount of sage and gorgonzola, plus walnuts. I have had it four or five times and it was consistent, except for one time when it seemed the chef had a heavy hand with the cheese and the olive oil, still good, a little too rich though.

  14. says

    When we lived in NW, we *loved* Sal’s. They were nice to us, provided decent, yummy food and they give you more meatballs than anywhere else. If the mission is for the best American-Italian food in Portland, Sal’s gets the call.

  15. Juliet Morefield says

    My friend and I gave Sal’s a try last night. Our salads arrived right away and were just fine. ‘The wait for our pasta was pretty long, especially given that it was a Sunday night, and not that crowded, and that we were only splitting one dish. It finally arrived, and it was not what we ordered. It’s replacement arrived quickly, but within two bites, my friend discovered a fingernail. We flagged down our server, who was incredibly apologetic. We gave up on the pasta, and moved on to chocolate cake.

    Our meal was comped. The manager came out to speak with us, and also told us the nail was a peice of plastic. Neither my friend nor I bought that for a minute. What we discovered was a filed nail. It was also clear it was from a pinky finger.

    Despite being a ticket offering me 20% off of my next meal, I don’t think I’ll be going back.

  16. JDG says

    Noticed the double down arrows next to Sal’s, which has fallen out of our regular rotation ever since Pinocchio opened, but we went again lately (NoPo location) and quality seemed largely consistent with past visits. If I had one complaint, the portion size of the carbonara seemed significantly smaller than in the past.

    On a related note, we ended up at the downtown Pastini last Sunday before a show at the Schnitz and needed a quick bite — we used to go to the Broadway location when it first opened and always liked it. I had the meatball sandwich which I think they made using less than one full meatball on the entire sandwich. I bring this up because I wonder if both of these instances are signs of major food-cost-cutting…

    • says

      Yeah, I just added the down arrows. The last few visits haven’t been nearly as good as they were when I wrote this review. I plan to go again soon, and take a more thorough look.

      I think many restaurants are shrinking portion size as a way to hold prices.

      • says

        I think many restaurants are shrinking portion size as a way to hold prices.

        I don’t necessarily think this is a bad idea, either. Portion control is insane and options of lighter menus or half-portions not often available.

        • sidemeat says

          Portion control is a great idea.I still buy gas at $3 a gallon at my local station. Of course it’s really only 3 quarts, but I was using too much anyway.

  17. reflexblue says

    Last time we were there, they had taken the fresh pesto and the salmon caesar from the menu. It used to be a good stand by, but I think they must have new owners now.

    My easy/moderate Italian ranking is as follows 1) Ciao Vito happy hour 2) Justa Pasta 3) La Buca 4) Il Piatto

    I haven’t been to Pinocchio’s. Lucca was just okay for me.

    • JDG says

      Pinocchio is significantly pricier than the rest of that list, but after probably a dozen visits for dinner we had our first lunch there yesterday, and I thought it was fabulous: panini with truffled ham and fontina and risotto with asparagus and shrimp. Easily the best panini I’ve ever had. I hope they are drawing enough business to make it through this apparent downturn. I will hold Roger Porter personally responsible if they don’t. :)

  18. says

    I ate at Sal’s twice in the past couple of months. Based on my two visits, the quality has definitely gone down. Eggplant Parm that was like a brick – made with too thick coating, drowing in sauce and it had turned rock hard in some places and soggy messy in others with the addition of way too much salt. An antipasti platter that can only be described as hostile: way past their prime in the walk-in marinated veggies that were taking on that slightly rank and acrid too old taste and turned to mush texture, the lone cheese option was (I kid you not) a few 1/2″x2″ slices of mostly Parmesan rind (yes, just the rind) and pasta that was cooked to Chef Boy-ar-Dee (or however you spell it) texture. Really, really disappointing meals there.

  19. sidemeat says

    But really, dining out is a treat for most, prices go up, if you are looking forward to the 6 oz pour and 10 oz steak you had 2 weeks ago, and it costs the same but is now 5 and 8: are you a happy diner? My experience would say not.

  20. New Haven Pizza says

    I had the occasion to go to Sal’s for lunch the other day, and found it to be excellent. The host and server were very welcoming and both charming. She was quite helpful with a wine suggestion, and actually suggested a less expensive house variety than the one we were thinking about. My brain is freezing here on what it was!

    My salad was the best I’d had in ages (no surprise here, since the salads at cousin Pizzicato are some of the best anywhere), and my sugo with fresh-made fettucini was delicious. My business companion had the linguine with clam sauce. Dish was cleaned, and certainly no complaints. In fact, we both raved and commented that with the plethora of great spots on Nob Hill, we were glad we thought of Sal’s.

    Having just read a few of the reviews here, I have to say we didn’t think about the portions… they were just fine. In fact, I left rather full.

    Maybe it’s time for a new review… While anyone can have a unique experience at any restaurant on any given day, I don’t think Sal’s deserves two down arrows.

  21. Archer47 says

    I like Sal’s and the other businesses in the Uptown Shopping center; however, I will never patronize those businesses again. I received a parking ticket for parking in the lot, buying ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s, and then driving away. I saw the signs in the lot stating that it is only for patrons of the businesses there. Ben & Jerry’s is listed on the signs.
    There was no ticket placed on my car at the time. Seven weeks later, I received a demand from a debt collection agency saying that Northwest Parking Control, which patrols the lot, had issued me a ticket for unauthorized parking.
    I disputed the debt and told them that I had gone to Ben & Jerry’s. Their response was to send me another demand for payment. It stated that they had contacted the client, reviewed the file and determined that the debt was valid.
    I disputed the debt again and requested a copy of the file and the contact information for the “client”. I still have not received the information and received a third demand for payment which shows an almost doubling of the fine.
    I have not been able to reach the management company for the mall to try to resolve this.
    Consider this a warning. Don’t park at Uptown Shopping Center. Patronizing the businesses there can be very expensive.

    • jpar says

      archer, from what i have seen, if you park on site and shop or eat there, they let it slide but if you walk off site, and don’t come back for an hour or more, you get a ticket.

      You should call the Ben & Jerrys and tell them that you got a ticket while you had an ice cream there. The tenant may be able to take care of it – especially if you have a merchant receipt from that day or maybe even just ask nicely and promise not to park there except to go to the center’s tenants.

  22. jpar says

    I just had a fantastic lunch at Sal’s, sat outside, with good music and a couple of friends and we had a great meal with good service. I had the grilled salmon with corkscrew pasta with fresh garden veggies and pesto. Amazing. Can’t wait to go back. I would highly recommend this restaurant.

    jpar

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