Mica Grohn
Geraldi's Café Renaissance

334 NE 28th Ave

503-236-8165

Despite the somewhat annoying name, Geraldi's Café Renaissance (once part of the now-dissolved Geraldi's empire) is a high point among Portland's middle-of-the-road Italian restaurants. Represented elsewhere by La Buca and Pastini Pastaria, this type of inexpensive, efficiently classy, pasta-and-panini joint is perfect for an intimate dinner without intimate prices. Before wine, your tab will be easily under $30, and could be about $20 (i.e. these are good places for first dates, when you don't know if you're going to score).

Pasta dishes at Geraldi's range from $5.50 for spaghetti marinara to $10+ for specials, and sandwiches are available for lunch and dinner, which are $5 and up. Wine is reasonably priced, and the list is well chosen and more eclectic than you might expect.

Egalitarian pricing usually means a limited menu, and Geraldi's is short, focusing on simple preparations without exotic ingredients. Each type of pasta can be had with marinara, meat sauce, or homemade pesto, and three different ravioli fillings are available; three-cheese, pesto cheese, and spinach--or a combination plate with all three. Vegan soups and sandwiches are also available for your hippie friend Tree Branch.

The three cheese ravioli I had was excellent, cooked to a nice, chewy texture, with a filling that was delicately flavored, allowing me to taste the cheese rather than aggressive herb seasoning. The marinara sauce, on the other hand, was a little watery and prepared with too much basil. The sauce may even have involved some fennel, which as everyone knows, is never a good idea. Though unspectacular, the ingredients in the sauce tasted very fresh.

A pasta special--prawns in a garlic, shallot, and white wine sauce, with basil and Roma tomatoes ($11)--was surprisingly subtle. The delicate flavor of shallots is usually lost in a preparation like this, overcome by the more assertive garlic and basil, but this sauce was well balanced, with a recognizable shallot flavor showing through. And again, the pasta was cooked al dente. I can never manage to do that at home.

It is the Caesar salad, however, that sets Geraldi's apart. The dressing is thick and garlicky, with a hint of anchovy--not the glorified ranch that often tries to pass for Caesar--and it is topped with real, thick-grated Parmesan. It's great. Unfortunately, the garlic bread is misnamed; barely garlicky at all. The bread may have been in the room with some garlic for a couple of hours once, but that's about it. Still good, though.

In the realm of desserts, I thought Geraldi's tiramisu ($4.50) was skimpy on the mascarpone (admittedly, I'll eat the stuff plain with a spoon), while I liked its generous, bittersweet chocolate. The marionberry cheesecake ($3.50), on the other hand is damn near perfect, with tart berry topping and all-too-rare real cheese tang; it is creamy and almost light in texture, with the slightly dry edge and moist center typical of a well-baked cheesecake.

Because Geraldi's is small (only eight tables), the atmosphere invites conversation and lingering after dinner over pints or Torrefazione coffee, brewed strong. So, ladies and gentlemen, if you dine here, you may want to choose a date you actually want to talk to.