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.
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. -TONY PEREZ