With chain restaurants like the Macaroni Grill and P.F. Chang's taking up prime real estate in the heart of Portland, it's natural to fear that over time, the city will surrender its soul. I dread the day when I tour downtown again after years of living abroad, only to find Old Spaghetti Factories clogging every street corner, and a bunch of moronic, pasty-faced drones waiting in line to gobble up another order of cheesy potato skins.
However, with independent restaurant powerhouses like Lisa Schroeder--owner of Mother's Bistro and now the Mama Mia Trattoria--flexing her muscles, I know Portland won't fall victim to a corporate takeover without a fight. Schroeder has made Mother's a downtown attraction, not only with delicious hearty breakfasts and an immaculate Victorian atmosphere, but with a full bar and late night menu to attract patrons from all walks of life. Mama Mia accomplishes a similar goal. With deliciously fresh and inventive cuisine, affordable prices, a beautiful dining room decorated with velvet, marble, and crystal chandeliers, and a cozy bar that welcomes you with a television broadcasting the Blazer's game, Mama Mia is universally appealing without being generic.
The food at Mama Mia is Southern Italian made with local ingredients--the restaurant doesn't go out of their way to tout the cuisine's authenticity, but rather the care and skill that goes into making each dish. Mama's seafood is exceedingly fresh; the mussels appetizer yielded a bowl of huge, perfectly cooked, buttery mussels in the shells, bathed in a tangy marinara. Likewise, the Cioppino (fish stew) married tender chunks of red snapper, huge prawns, rings of calamari, clams, and again the giant mussels in a slightly spicy, garlicky tomato stew.
The lasagna--homemade daily--was prepared with chicken, mushrooms, onions, pesto, and layers of cheese, packed densely into a deep ceramic boat, and layered with sauce. The flavors melded artistically, the strong taste of several cheeses complimenting the subtle chicken and spike of the tomato and pesto sauces.
While dining at Mama Mia don't miss out on one of their artistic salads--the Caesar is huge, creamy, and amazing, and even the house salad includes details like candied pecans, and whisper thin slices of red onion. And, of course, to celebrate the delicious food, you should splurge on a Chianti Classico or Valpolicella--red wine is, after all, the ultimate compliment to Italian food.
One word of advice when ordering at Mama Mia: it's easy to overload yourself on tomato sauce. I, personally, ordered mussels in marinara, a seafood tomato stew, and then on my side dish of pasta, ordered marinara again. At the time I was high on decongestants, so it's easy to understand how this happened--but don't make the same mistake. The restaurant offers a pleasant olive oil and cheese sauce for pasta, and a white sauce with the linguine and clams if you find the rest of your meal dominated by red.
Keeping the independent spirit of Portland alive depends on supporting local restaurants like Mama Mia, Old Town Pizza, Eleni's, etc--and why wouldn't you? The food taste and quality exceeds that of Newport Bay or Manzana by 1,000 percent, and you're ensuring that decades from now, Portland is a city that will make you feel at home.