4826 N Lombard
3520 SE Powell
Every once in a while I shirk the confines of class and taste and head out to one of those typical marinara sauce and meatball Italian joints. Who am I kidding? While I consider myself a person with good taste and some class, I'm not above eating at a family restaurant on Powell or Lombard. In fact, sometimes I prefer it to an expensive dinner on Northwest 21st at a restaurant where the server calls me ma'am, even though I look like I'm 14 years old.
Two places that fill this void are Nicola's restaurant in North Portland and DeNicola's on the other side of town. Quite obviously, I'm not the only one who subscribes to this low-maintenance style of dining, considering I showed up at Nicola's on a Tuesday to a line of people outside. Granted, the warm, homey restaurant is small--but not that small--and it's on a relatively barren strip of Lombard. I felt stupid waiting in line for a plate of pasta like a ravenous Olive Garden customer, but regardless, I did, and was rewarded.
The dinner I ordered was a slightly spicy sausage, green pepper, and tomato sauce over spaghetti that came with a joyful green salad and a mini antipasti plate with salami, pepperoni, and pepperocinis. Nice for sharing, simple, and filling. The person across the table from me ordered a giant calzone, one of Nicola's specialties, and then complained that it was too small when it arrived looking like a dough football. The calzone's crust was airy, chewy, delicious, and greaseless; obviously a subject of the owner's toil. Stuffed with a choice of ingredients--sausage, mushrooms, extra cheese, etc. --and ladled with a typical, yet tasty sauce, it's a decadent delight, and nearly everyone in the restaurant had ordered one. Also, if the immense volume of takeout orders is any indicator, Nicola's pizza is a winner as well. In nice weather, this is a good place to hit, because you can sit outside on the cute back patio.
DeNicola's, while being a perfect destination when your Midwestern grandparents come to town, is also right next door to two strip clubs, including the infamous Cocktails and Dreams. Eat a big plate of food, drink beer, check out some boobs... doesn't sound too bad, does it?
Besides location, DeNicola's offers a wide range of Italian delights, notables being their spinach ricotta lasagna and the manicotti. The ricotta cheese they use has an otherworldly creaminess that you won't be able to resist. The evening I ate there, they offered steamer clams with linguine, which were fresh and impressive, although the accompanying crushed tomato sauce could have used less salt. It was good... I just had to drink a gallon of water afterwards.
I don't know why, but there's something that makes me happy about eating in restaurants like these. Maybe it's the relief of not running into anyone I know, maybe it's the cheap prices, or perhaps it's that I feel like I'm eating dinner in some random town off I-5. Regardless, at least I feel good about giving my $25 to a small business rather than dumping it into the corporate pasta or pizza machines.