EARLY IN OUR RELATIONSHIP my girlfriend and I went on a travel-writing trip together. I took pictures of her all along the way; across tables in restaurants we couldn't otherwise afford, alongside medieval casements, that sort of thing. She was delighted by the photos, despite my lack of skill with the camera. She said that she had always disliked pictures of herself, except for the few taken by her adoring children. Hence the maxim: You can't take a wonderful picture of something unless you love it.
That tidy little concept comes to mind when I see the unloved, unfocused food at Piattino.
First, some quick background. Piattino was formerly the Mediterranean-Iranian restaurant Shiraz Grill. Two years ago, Nostrana spin-off Oven and Shaker moved in next door to Shiraz. Oven and Shaker made so much money, Shiraz decided to become Italian too, taking cues from its neighbor's menu and décor. That's fine, right? Lots of Portland restaurants look like each other!
No. In an interview recently, John Gorham (Toro Bravo, the Tasty restaurants) told me that he doesn't like his cooks to prepare one of his dishes until the cook loves it, until they "get" what's great about it. The care comes through in the food; what's special about it is featured to its best effect. When I receive a dish at Piattino—say, the wood-fire-roasted half hen with peperonata, parsley, and fennel pollen ($12)—my signals go haywire, then quiet. The bird's skin is more black-gray than appetizingly charred, the peperonata is limp and bland, and the whole assembly sits in a cast-iron pan in a pure black ring of the creosote of god knows what, having sat under a broiler for god knows how long. No one who loves roasted hen sends out a dish that dull and ugly. It's nothing to share with people.
Lamb pappardelle ($13) features decent housemade pasta, but the ragu is watery and tastes like it's been run through the dishwasher—the meat seems to have had all its flavor boiled out while being used for stock. Potato gnocchi with "rustic" pork and tomato ragu ($12) were waterlogged and gluey, because gnocchi are very hard to make well unless you are fairly devoted to them. The best pasta, lasagnette with kale pesto, gorgonzola, and black garlic ($12), was flavorful and tender—but why did it come to the table in an awkward little cast-iron pan?
Pizzas are inconsistent, and on the small side. On one night the crust of a Calabrian (mushroom, salumi, pepperoni, chiles, buffalo mozzarella, $14) had good chew and decent seasoning, but half the cornicione was pure black. What chef sends that out? Another night, the crust of the Della Terra (wild mushrooms, braised leeks, taleggio, truffle oil, $15) was nothing more than crisp, bland flatbread.
Roasted cauliflower ($8) was limp and warm, and had none of the personality of a wood fire on it. Most serviceable as food was a cast-iron mini-pan of tender house meatballs ($12), with a rich smoked marinara and competently fried polenta cubes. Over the course of $200 in food and drinks, though, the only thing I'd get again is the pear and goat cheesecake ($8), a gigantic wedge whose gentle tang and smooth body ate nicely with a smattering of crunchy granola and tart-sweet balsamic reduction.
Service is attentive, though everybody always seems fairly new, and nobody knows who's doing what. Dishes are checked on, but by many people, and at disconcerting times. I noticed on each visit that our waiter made our cocktails ($8-9), which were without fail wildly imbalanced, and typically based on problematic recipes. The Caribbean Romance (light rum, amaretto, orange juice, pineapple juice, grenadine) might succeed in expert hands, but this drink had more in common with Children's Tylenol.
At the end of the day, Piattino feels like a tourist trap. The owner swans from table to table, laughing as he charmingly suggests that you buy something more than what you have—every joke feeling like an undisguised upsell. He swoops in on diners, beaming, offering leading questions about how much you like the food—and people who are too nice, are also too intimidated to tell him that their $8 cocktails taste like frat-house potshots, that their $12 black kale salad was one chewy, julienned leaf. Perhaps he wouldn't have to sell the food so hard if he'd just go back in the kitchen and pay some attention to it.