A review of Gilda’s Italian Restaurant in Portland Oregon
by Roger Porter
You hear all the time that one of the lamentable gaps in Portland’s culinary scene is the absence of great Chinese restaurants. Understandably there is little here to compare with the Chinese food palaces of San Francisco or Vancouver, B.C., but sadly we fall down in that department relative to Seattle as well. But a less recognized dirty little secret is that Portland’s Italian restaurant scene is also puzzlingly disappointing. With the grand exception of the incomparable Nostrana, and perhaps Mingo and its younger sibling Bar Mingo, there are few really exciting, deeply satisfying places in town serving exceptional Italian cuisine. Alba was another such place, but lamentably it closed not long ago. Of course, you can get good pasta in many places, and the occasional authentically Italian dish (if you select carefully Gino’s can be one such place, Serrato and Basta’s are others) but overall there is little to assuage the nostalgia of a discriminating refugee from the old country.
Gilda’s Restaurant is one of those places that tries mightily, and with a dish here, another there succeeds in delivering an enjoyable experience. But it is bothered by inconsistency, and you take your chances with a menu that sometimes lives up to hopes, at other times dashes them upon the shoals of regret. There’s a winning earnestness, and the host, charmingly Italian, plays the Valentino card to the hilt, sprinkling his conversation with the odd Italian phrase and kissing women customers as if to say, “This is what it’s like to be from Sorrento, see now, you’ve had the real thing.” Perhaps.
Gilda’s is a quintessential neighborhood spot, though it’s hardly in a neighborhood. Downtown on the MAX line near the stadium, Artists Repertory Theatre, and the Tiffany Center, it’s a convenient spot to drop in before or just after a game or a show. It’s also a pleasantly comfortable space, though on one side of the room the wooden benches can be a bit hard. Butcher-block paper covers the tables, and the open kitchen stands behind a wine case (not necessarily a good thing for the wine). The decor features photos of an older Italy, along with vibrant images of Italian markets and a photograph of the chef’s authoritative Nona. Ringing the ceiling is a circular painting of Florence, with labels to make sure the neck-craning viewer locates the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio. You give silent thanks there are no Chianti bottle lamps or red checked tablecloths. So, if things are just this side of kitsch, what about the kitchen?
The good news is that Gilda’s has a way with creatures from the sea; the restaurant doesn’t tout itself as a trattoria di mare, but Neptune might be its muse. The fritto misto puts such dishes elsewhere to shame: squid, scallops and shrimp arrive as hot as Vesuvian rock, and are crisp, briny, and without the excess breading that can turn the seafood mushy if the dish is not done properly. Pepper-crusted ahi comes with a fine char on the outside and is correctly medium rare in the interior, the pepper lending a bite that blends nicely with the olives surrounding a very generous portion. If there’s a problem with the dish it’s that a bit too much olive oil slathers the fish, and that tendency to oily excess carries over throughout the menu. Sea scallops—four plump beauties—are cooked just right, though the advertised lobster basil cream sauce tastes as much of lobster as the Willamette provides the raw ingredient.
Gilda’s stars with its pasta as well. I liked a curious but rather successful tagliatelle intermingled with artichoke hearts, sun-dried cranberries, sage, and a touch of Madeira. Ordinarily, such an incongruous combination would have put me in a near-schizophrenic mood, but somehow it all blended nicely, earthy and with a hint of fruit and sweetness as the berries popped in the mouth–a kind of entirely satisfying late autumnal dish. On this occasion Gilda’s spare saucing allows you to take in all the correctly balanced flavors. Nevertheless, here again, the oil was applied with a heavy hand; if you feel the dish is too unctuous, the solution is to ask for extra cheese to dry things out a bit. A special first course of ravioli filled with wild mushrooms and a forestry cream sauce was a fine choice. Portions of the pasta are ample, and the restaurant will gladly halve an order to turn it into a starter, to be sure the proper Italian way.
Several appetizers fall just short, however. An interesting savory “flan” made with artichoke, Parmesan, and garnished with fried artichoke leaves needs to be smoother—the cup-sized mass seemed to have curdled somewhat. Arancini, deep-fried rice balls stuffed with mozzarella are admirably void of the gummy texture that so often plagues this addictive Sicilian dish, but they arrived inundated with tomato sauce that simply took over and robbed the arancini of the rich taste characteristic of these golf-ball-sized antipasti, whose name means “little oranges.” Incidentally, these snacks–fast food in Palermo–provide a wonderful lesson in culinary ecumenicalism: the cheese served in Sicily is frequently canestrato fresco that actually originated with the Greeks, the rice and saffron (and occasionally currants and pine nuts) come from the Arabs, and the tomato sauce from the Spanish.
A dish that will evoke memories in any Italian family or devotee of red sauce places in, say, Little Italy, is veal scaloppini. It’s good to see veal on a menu since numerous restaurants simply refuse to serve young calf. The style at Gilda’s changes each night, and I was lucky to catch the veal when it was cooked in a classic vein with Marsala and a side of crunchy tortellini stuffed with lots of cheese. But my hopes were dashed with a dish I often feel is the absolute measuring rod of an Italian restaurant’s serious intentions: osso bucco (literally “bone with hole”) or braised lamb shanks. Admittedly the meat ought to be fork-tender, a creamy morsel that is the very essence of comfort food; but unhappily at Gilda’s the veal was terribly overcooked, its flavor sadly leached out. While some cooks prefer to omit the traditional gremolada—parsley, garlic, and grated lemon peel—Gilda’s withholds that strongly flavored, vibrant garnish that covers the shanks as they finish braising.
Desserts exhibit some of the same unevenness. It’s always good to see a creamy, not overly sweet tiramisu, with just the right balance of coffee, cocoa powder, and mascarpone. But what was orally presented as “mille-feuille of apples” is startlingly absent any flaky layers of pastry and the apples were not much firmer than applesauce. Somewhere between these two in quality is a plater of cannoli, that great dish of fried pastry shells filled with ricotta cream, chopped candied fruit (often oranges or cherries), and tiny chocolate chips. Gilda’s omitted the latter ingredients but did include some pistachios.
If you order carefully at Gilda’s the comfort level will be reasonable, but slip up and you’ll wonder why Portland can’t do better. Admittedly the restaurant is, with a couple of exceptions, going for the tried and true, the classic dishes of the old country, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Grandmother Gilda’s visage looks down on the efforts of her grandson Marco Roberti, who’s committed to reproducing her devotion to the kitchen. I admire the allegiance to that tradition and to the simple ingredients based on culinary folkways, the dishes of villages where rustic stone fireplaces were once the center of life. There are hints here of such a culinary life. I’d wish for an even surer hand, or perhaps a return of Nona to ensure that everything is going as it should.
- Food: B
- Service: B
- Ambiance: B minus
Address: 1601 SW Morrison Street, Portland 97205 Map