ENZO'S CAFFE ITALIANO has greeted diners at its Northeast Portland location for exactly one year, offering an inventive and unique menu of regionally focused, hand-made pastas, sauces, and secondi. Chef Enzo Lanzadoro, a native of the seaport of Bari, prides himself on a Southern Italian menu that folks will find nowhere else in Portland. Even standard trattoria workhorses at Enzo's are nuanced with fresh house-made cheeses, regional vegetables, and an idiosyncratic mastery of herbs that bring a renewed excitement to otherwise familiar fare. These fairly priced, sturdy dishes arrive in good time on the hands of a gracious server, in an ambience imbued with a wealth of comforting hospitality. To reserve a table is, in the European tradition, to have it for the night, and Lanzadoro takes it as a high compliment to his life's passion when customers linger over conversation and limoncello.
Over five visits this remarkable yet under-sung café has proven a consistently welcoming and rewarding investment. There Lanzadoro stands behind his counter, ever cheerful, his kitchen the size of a phone booth. His paternal exuberance grows warmer when he sees you; he waves his generous hand as you come and go, he comes to the table to check in, to answer questions, to describe in great detail his little masterpieces. It is reassuring when the chef is the reason for the restaurant, and not vice versa.
Lanzadoro's cavatelli e fasul, a rich meal of a soup, is luscious, deeply comforting, and core warming. The springy fresh pasta and plump white beans rise from the broth with luxurious chunks of aged pecorino ready to melt on your tongue—the orange stock slightly thick but strained, refined, and harmonious. This is no afterthought kitchen-sink minestrone; it is as carefully crafted and satisfying as any of the main dishes, and at $10 with bread, an excellent and healthful meal.
In concert with the truly remarkable house-made, cut-to-order pastas, an impeccable repertoire of rich, fresh, complex sauces inspire a person to reflect on what he's been missing in the standard reds and whites. A fragrant and beguiling pomodoro—a tomato sauce often relegated to sweet child's fare—is a worthy alternative even for those who prefer hearty meat and heavy starch. In a linguini special of schiacciate caprese, this sauce's several treatments of garlic top the slightly crudo tomato base, and a single wilted sprig of basil somehow permeates the whole. Slowly melting over this ragu is a dollop of handmade crème cheese, a fresh cow's milk curd not unlike the texture of chèvre. The pappardelle ai funghi appears at first to be nothing more spectacular than a pleasant dish of hearty egg noodles and gratifyingly thick mushroom crème cheese sauce, but after a few centering forkfuls, the slowly growing pungency of fresh oregano completes the rich texture of cardoncelli mushrooms and asparagus.
As for Lanzadoro's treatment of familiar staples, the spaghetti carbonara ($14) is a fine example: subtly fiery with black pepper, salty with cubed pancetta, and smoothly dressed with cream and a yolk that has just cooked but is not curdled. It may weep a few unctuous tears as it settles, but that is testament to its indulgent richness; you don't order carbonara and hope it's light.
The fettine al pecorino ($17)—thinly sliced wine-cured chuck in a thick, commanding sauce of garlic, capers, oregano, and pecorino sardo—is visually and texturally similar to a beef stroganoff. It is a dish to share, and comes to the table with thick grilled bruschetta. The generous serving would be good for three or four, if also enjoying the sizable primi.
Rounding out a 30-plus item menu are several Southern Italian seafood dishes, rotating treatments of beef and wild boar, salads, and a large pizza assortment. Together with an extremely generous pour of an unpretentious Montepulciano, it can be an affordable and transporting indulgence. A deli case in the market-style counter offers charcuterie, olives, and cheeses for building a complete picnic.
As NE Alberta continues to thrive as a dining destination, a prime-time booking at Enzo's will likely be a coveted score; call ahead and reserve a window seat, or perhaps join them for their new springtime café lunches, which, at $8.95 for a panini and salad, will be a happy way to let the uniquely talented Enzo take care of you.
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 am-10 pm. Affordable and generously poured Italian wines, with espresso and a highly traditional assortment of dessert. Beg him to teach weekend classes.