THERE'S SOMETHING about the romance languages that's just more, well, romantic. Mucca Osteria. It feels good coming off the tongue. I sit at my desk and do a terrible Marcello Mastroianni impression. Piacere. MU-cca O-ster-Ia. Eventually I type the phrase into Google Translate.
While the English version may evoke a dive bar in Coalinga, the euphony of the Italian is suitable for this small, elegant Italian restaurant. And if my translation deflates the romance, all will be forgotten when you see the two improbably handsome chefs, seemingly pulled directly from Central Casting's "European Men with Chiseled Jaw" binder.
Chef Simone Savaiano, originally from Rome, still owns a restaurant in Tuscany, but most recently he could be found in the kitchen of Santa Monica's Via Veneto (fun fact: it's co-owned by Duran Duran/Missing Persons guitarist Warren Cuccurullo). Savaiano and his wife visited Portland on a West Coast road trip, and immediately fell in love. Mucca Osteria, like its owner, isn't tied to one region or style of cooking, but it is distinctly authentic Italian food—something Portland doesn't exactly have in spades.
My first visit was during lunchtime. I was pleased to see some fairly reasonable lunch specials, each with an antipasto and an entrée, for $12 to $18 (for an additional $3 you can tack on dessert, and for $5 a three-ounce glass of the house wine). I started with the tagliere della casa, a selection of four cured meats, green olives, grapes, and the best sundried tomatoes I've ever had. The flavor was surprisingly bright and bold. I'm not typically a fan, but I'm going to have to rethink my position. I was also impressed with the basket of fresh-baked bread. It was thick and just a bit tangy (I'm guessing that comes from the fermented raisins Savaiano uses as a start), and served with an excellent earthy olive oil.
For my entrée, I had the cavatelli con salsiccia. The handmade pasta would be the first real test, and it exceeded my expectations. The shells were about the size of a marble, and had a perfect texture and density. The pasta was served with nickel-sized pieces of Italian pork sausage—tangy and rich—and light parmesan cream sauce. The sauce was flavorful but understated—it allowed you to taste the pasta itself, which I found refreshing.
Service was fairly quick; Mucca Osteria would be a pretty good option for business lunches downtown.
When I returned for dinner, I was a bit intimidated by the wine list (Italian wines, I have to admit, are something of a blind spot). I only learned later that both chefs are certified sommeliers, and that everything was likely a safe bet. I look forward to going back with a more DOC-literate friend who can walk me through the list.
This time we started with a buffalo mozzarella caprese salad, which was served in a stack of red and yellow heirloom tomatoes. The cheese was gooey and marvelous, and there was just enough fresh basil to complement each bite without overwhelming it.
My date and I decided to split a pasta dish and an entrée, and the kitchen was shrewd enough to split them into two portions and serve them in courses, which was a nice touch.
For pasta, we tried the spaghetti with shaved bottarga (cured roe from a Mediterranean gray mullet). Again, the pasta was fantastic and the bottarga had a delicate flavor that avoided being too fishy. If you see this dish on the specials board, I highly recommend it.
Next we had the seared duck breast, which is cooked in its own fat to make a great balsamic glaze. The meat is prepared in tender, thin medallions and served with green beans that my date declared her favorite part of the meal (I think she overstates their case, but not dramatically).
We declined dessert, but the chefs smiled (swoon!) and sent us a slice of tiramisu anyway. It was clear they knew better than we did. So creamy. So rich. It was dusted with bittersweet chocolate and didn't stand a chance. We devoured it, giggling.
Pasta dishes are priced in the mid-teens, and the secondi dishes (steak, duck, fish) hover around the low to mid 20s. Both price groups seem appropriate for what you're getting. The antipasto dishes, however, seem a little steep—they're priced about the same as the pastas. Still, before wine, it's easy to have a great meal for two in the $50 range.
I think Mucca Osteria is going to prove itself as one of the better purveyors of Italian food in town, which isn't bad for a humble cow tavern.