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
What about 3 Doors Down Cafe? Consistently one of the best Italian restaurants in Portland over the last 20 years.
I’ve eaten here twice. I had the pepper-crusted tuna the first time and liked it very much. The second time I had the veal picatta which was cooked beautifully, but I had to scrape off an overabundance of capers that were piled on top. The tortellini that came with the veal, however, were very good.
Lastly, I and the two women dining with me one night thought the waiter’s insistence on kissing all of us as he presented the check was WAY over the top. This place beats Sal’s, however. I hope they make a few improvements, because they do show promise. Just lay off the gratuitous cheek kissing…
Reminds me of the old Portofino restaurant in Sellwood where the owner would dim the lights at some point during dinner service as declare to all that it was “Kissing Time!” It was cute at first but when I saw him head for the nearest woman who was attractive and not with anyone, it got sort of creepy. (Sort of the like party where Bob Packwood hit on my wife in front of me…different story but same creepy)
We have found decarli’s in Beaverton to be a consistently good Italian restaurant.
Yeah, I’m not sure how you passed over 3 Doors. It certainly is in the league or over most of the restaurants you mentioned.
Interesting Jimster I haven’t heard anything about Pazzo in years I seemed like at one time it was the King of Italian restaurants in Portland at least PR wise. I totally forgot about ! It would be interesting to hear what’s happening there .
I think 3 doors down is one of the most under-appreciated restaurants in town, Italian or not.
I would whole heartedly agree on Three Doors Down. The pastas there are wonderful, as good as any I’ve had in Portland. But I’d hate to know the calorie count on them.
When it comes to steak, I’d rather have one there as well vs El Gaucho – where I’ve had nothing but overpriced, and not well prepared steaks on more than one occasion. My top choice in restaurants on the entire eastside.
Has anyone eaten at Pazzo lately? Sometimes I grab a cocktail there. Recently I saw a woman having a beet salad that looked pretty nice. I would have low-ish expectations but I have not eaten there in an age.
What about Lucca?
peggy christenson says
i think Gilda’s is one class act! I love everything i have ever ordered. the sfpormatino and tuna tartare are my personal favorites. All the pasta, veal and especially. the fish and seafood dishes have always been total perfection both in quality and quantity. I would much rather eat in a restaurant that had a tendency to be generous with ingredients than skimpy which seems to be the norm in most cases. Mille feuille my favorite dessert is a nice light touch after several courses. i have been there when they refused to serve it to me, because it did not turn out to their standards. Apples very. My first impression when i met the charming head waiter was that these people know what they are doing. he is a total delight and ads so much to the perfect meal and ambiance of Gilda’s, Marco has done his grandmother proud.
I have eaten at Gilda’s numerous times and love it. The food is great and the close atmosphere is warm. I have recomended Gilda’s to a lot of friends and all have enjoyed…. Keep up the great food Marco!!!!!
I’d say my experience was pretty similar to Roger’s. The fritto misto was excellent (though sorely lacking in the promised shrimp), as were the scallops. However, my veal scaloppini was overcooked to the point where it could no longer be readily cut with a fork. I’d say the seafood and pasta are well worth a trip, but you’re rolling the dice with the meat dishes.
The Veal is never over cooked. I eat it all the time. I am surprised, I don’t think people in Portland even know what real Italian food is. Bravo Gilda’s finally a real Italian restaurant.
Roger thinks that Italian food is standardized, it is not. Cannolli filling is whatever you want in it, ricotta sugar and whatever you imagination is from there. Osso Buco is not lamb it is veal, and gremolata is optional. Sformatino is like quiche, smooth?? Humm, ah no. Millie Foglie di Mele (apples) is not made with pastry, interesting comments from someone who purports they are an expert on food. I suggest he quit looking at “Italy the Beautiful Italian Cookbook” and actually go there and eat the regional differences.
Possibly the veal was not overcooked and there was something else going on, but overcooking seemed to me the most obvious explanation for its incredible toughness. I have only been to Italy once, and did not have any veal while I was over there, but I’m fairly certain that toughness is not a prerequisite for authenticity. It seems to me that veal should always be fork-tender.
I saw a plate of veal sit on their unheated “pass-space” for 3 min. How it would not be cold or the carry over heat would not have overcooked it is beyond me. If you’re going to let guests see their food, dont make them wait to eat it.
Also, my scallops tasted wayyyy too fishy. Either they arrive frozen, or they keep seafood past when it should be.
Glad to hear the veal is never overcooked. I bet nobody has ever waited too long for anything and nothing has ever been over or under seasoned. Isn’t flaky pastry the definition of Millie Foglie (mille feuille in french)? And Marco, Gremolata is optional on any dish that it is served with but it is the “traditional” garnish with osso bucco. By the way, Marco, are you the chef there because if you are those comments amuse me to no end? If you are not you are still very amusing (but I’m not laughing with you).
WOW, have any of you people been to Italy, especially you Roger. I have eaten from the Italian Alps all the way to The Straight of Messina (you can’t go any further south). I can tell you all from experience that local recipes TRUMP many “traditional” expectations. The number of variations on specific dishes is endless especially the further south you go. If every Italian Restaurant used exactly the same recipe for every dish what would be the point of eating at different Italian restaurants. Bad mouthing one restaurants recipe (and that is all a critic does is bad mouth) from another is like saying one brew pubs IPA is too bitter or not bitter enough. Hang up the critic badge Roger and go to Italy. The restaurant business is hard enough, in this economy you should be ashamed of your self for writing a review like this. Oh and NYC-PDX above about the Capers piled on top, every item on the menu says exactly what is on it. Ask them to hold the capers! Just like wine snobs. I know everything I need to know about wine, if I like it it is good, if I don’t it is not. Let us make up our own minds about Gilda’s. I have dined there at least ten time since they opened. I have never been disappointed. I don’t need some nasty food critic telling me where to eat, I’ll miss out on half the good places in town if I did.
And no one is ever honest, and no one named themick ever comes off as a complete prick! Glad to hear it!
Actually, thirty seconds of half-assed Intertube research has told me that, no, ‘Millie Foglie di Mele’ does not necessarily have anything to do with pastry. Has a bit to do with apples, though.
Also, I think ‘optional’, means ‘optional’. As in, ‘not necessary, even if you’re convinced that it has to be there for any version of it to have any validity, because a food authority said so’.
Nice Ad Hominem finish, though.
Hey Julian — he gave the place a “B”. That’s actually good.
Glad the google is working out for you. What I learned about millie foglie is that the literal translation is “a thousand leaves” referring to the flaky pastry used in the dish. Originating in France (mille feuille), many countries have their variations. I did state that comment in the form of a question in the hopes that I could be educated more as I love learning new things especially about food as it is a great passion of mine. I try to eat it every day. The point of my sarcastic comment was to highlight the idiocy of the first line in Marco’s comment….”the veal is never overcooked”…..after a comment like that it is hard to take anything else said seriously….which I didn’t,…..I’m sorry you did.
Themick and pollo are right. After reading the review, I put this restaurant on my go-to list. After reading the comments, uh, no.
The Wizard Tim says
So you can’t use a knife, or you just decided to complain on a blog site instead of addressing your server with what is obviously an inedible dish? Why do people wait to bitch about things on a dying blog when they could have their grievances taken care of, in real time no less, while they are dining.
Food Dude says
A dying blog? Our traffic is the highest it has ever been!
Lots of people don’t feel comfortable complaining in restaurants. That’s why there is such a deluge of websites that allow people to do just that.
Reply button seems to work fine for me, but I was in the middle of rolling out all the site tweaks when you posted this.
a lot of traffic but fewer people stopping.
ever since they built that twitter next to the yelp
down the road the conversation has been lost somewhat
people in a hurry to blurt out some momentary inanity
or re-post, link or like a twit, feed or mewling.
seems to me that a few years ago comments flew fast and furious
replies generated responses in minutes and things sometimes got a bit heated.
lord that was fun.
You just miss the heady days of Shameless.
here we are,
just a couple of knuckleheads
from the old days
remember how that one blogger would absolutely foam at the mouth?
Fat Milo's Mom says
I live in Beaverton( o the shame ) & Decarli’s is indeed, an excellent choice for an Italian meal.
I do miss the Shameless days. Lord, what fun that was.
Too bad I never used the same name twice. I’d love to frame my best.
Missing :) :) too!
A mille-feuille is actually a Napoleon which is a reference to the city of Naples where it was the inspiration for Careme. So all roads lead to Rome except in this case they lead to Naples
So, inspired to learn more now that Marco or thepope (same person?) seem to have stepped away from backing up their arguments that it is an apple dessert that has nothing to do with pastry I have found that the actual history of the Napoleon (Mille Feuille, Millie Foglie etc) is a debate that has been ongoing for hundreds of years with no clear outcome. Larousse mentions it and even Careme (who has often been cited as the inventor) calls it “a recipe of ancient origin”. In fact, I am quite happy that nobody truly knows the answer because that is the beauty of cuisine and how dishes and recipes are constantly evolving. Inspirations are forever being drawn from the most distant corners of the earth.
“Napoleons…have nothing to do with Bonaparte, the daring Corsican…The name is the result of a misunderstanding of the French word Napolitain which should have been translated as Neopolitan pertaining to Naples. They are very much like the French mille-fueille or the Italian mille foglie both of which mean a thousand leaves.”
—Rare Bits: Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes, Patricial Bunning Stevens [Ohio University Press:Athens] 1998 (p.202).
“Mille-Fueilles…The original cream-filled Mille-fueille or thousand leaf puff pastry was the probably creation of Careme, who may have used it as a grosse piece d’entremets to adorn a banquet table. It often goes by the name Napoleon, not out of respect for the corpulent corporal but as a corruption of Napolitain, referring to the Neapolitan manner of making sweets and ices in layers of alternating texture and color.”
—The Horizon CookBook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking though the Ages, William Harlan Hale [American Heritage:New York] 1968 (p. 685).
“Napolitains are large cakes which, like Breton and Savoie cakes, mille-feuilles and croquembouche, were once used to decorate elaborate buffets. In former times it was customary to place at each end of a table set for a large dinner party either and imposing decorated pastry or a heap of crayfish of other shellfish. This practice has now been abandoned; and although napolitains are still made, they are now usually small. The name of this cake suggests that it was created in Naples, but was this, in fact, the case? Or must we, as would seem more probable, ascribe its invention to Careme, who, as is generally known, at the time when he was making great set pieces, invented a certain number of large and magnificent pastries to which he himself gave the names which they bear today? It is a question to which no certain answer can be given.”
—Larousse Gastronomique, Prosper Montagne, editor [Crown:New York] 1961 (p.653).
“Mille Feuilles, French for thousand leaves and a term for any of several items made from several layers of puff pastry…The invention of the form (but not of the pastry itself) is usually attribued to the Hungarian town of Szeged, and a caramel-coated mille feuilles is called Szegedinertorte. Careme, writing at the end of the 18th century, cautiously states only that it was of ancient origin…The most usual kind of mille fueilles is made of three layers of pastry baked in a rectangle shape, sandwiched with a cream filling containing nuts, or or some other cream or apricot jam, the top sprinkled with icing sugar…One particular oval type consisting of two layers joined around the edge, containing the same almond filling as gateau Pithiviers and iced with the same mixture diluted with egg white, is known in France as a “Napoleon’–probably a corruption of “Napolitain’, from the Neapolitan habit of making layered confections. In the USA the name Napoleon’ may be applied to any mille feuilles, and it is usually to to all kinds with royal icing.”
—Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 505)
About filo: According to the food historians, filo/phyllo is of Turkish origin. One of the most popular foods made with this kind of dough is Baklava.
The Careme connection?
Careme is generally regarded as the father of all modern French pastries. Ian Kelly’s Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef includes a (modernized, translated) recipe for Gateau Pithvieir, attributed to Careme circa 1805 (p. 261). It is not so very different from modern Napoleons. La Varenne’s French Cook (we have the English version, circa 1653 published by Southover Press c. 2001) does not offer a recipe for Napolitains. It does, however offer several general instructions for pastry making (p. 192). It also offers recipes for two layered tortes: Tourte of Franchipanne (p. 200) and Tourte of Massepin [marzipan aka almond paste] (p. 201). It is interesting to note [but not necessarily connected] that Marie-Antoine Careme [1783-1833], the famous french pastry chef who managed Tallyrand’s kitchens, was a contemporary of Napoleon I [1769-1821].
That being said, if you are going to remove the one ingredient for which the dish is named you might be considered taking the concept of evolution too far. But you could still call it something like “no foglia con mele”, or, “Bastardo di Napoleon” or, “Spogliato Napolitain”.
Sorry my enlightening of others bothers you so. By posting this I was just giving facts to my side of the discussion after being called a prick by a poster above because I challenged his unsubstantiated comments. I am sure that many people appreciated my post (those who like to educate themselves) and then there are obviously others who didn’t (those who are metaphorically blissful).
I *highly* doubt that the Marco posting here was the the chef at Gilda’s, as I know him and he is nothing like that. Marco is very genuine and I am sure if he has read this he is going over the problems with a fine tooth comb. I have eaten at Gildas twice and I will be back as I have had nothing but great experiences. Denise- hopefully you will still give Gilda’s a fair shot!
Perhaps the “Marco” posting on here was the chef from Basta? It sounds more like his type of response. Or just another dude named Marco?
I agree with Kolibri doubt Marco posted. I’ve eaten there several times (mostly pasta and fish have enjoyed my meals). Like every restaurant there are inconsistencies, my overall experience has been positive.
There is no pretense, it’s a ‘neighborhood’ feel in a un-neighborhood area. Can do w/o the kissing Italian.
I love Gilda’s, and I keep running into people who bring it up as a place that must be tried. The rigatoni ragu bolognese is deeply flavored, the tuna is fantastic, the spaghetti and meatballs is comforting (prefer the bolognese, though) and a grilled veggie starter was really good. My husband and son thought the Caesar salad was superb–said the dressing had an unusual kick. The bread comes with a great olive oil sauce. House white wine is nice. I think the decor is sweet, and no ever tried kissing me there except my family. We’ve been too full for dessert, but next time I’d better leave room for that controversial apple Mille feuille.
Roger – I Think all comments could have been avoid if you would have said positive stuff without conditionalizing it. 9 paragraphs on a restaurant from an english professor is a bit much. Seen Gordon Ramsey lately or what? Chill and try to be more uplifting. If it sucks don’t say anything. Is that so hard?
Food Dude says
This is a food review site. We will tell you if something is good, or if it is bad. If you can’t deal with that, there are plenty of other sites that I’m sure will fill your needs.