WHEN PETISCO says "sandwich," there's a continental inflection to the word (more like "sahndweech"). The flavors are simple: muted nuttiness from a creamy brie, slight smokiness from thinly sliced ham, and gentle sweetness and tanginess from ripe tomato. In various combinations the flavors of these and other basic constituents are mixed, matched, and stuffed neatly into bread from Fleur de Lis Bakery. The end results are understated, balanced, and delicious comestibles.
It's easy to associate quiet simplicity with mediocrity. But Petisco is far from mediocre. Here, fine ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves. But they don't speak as much as whisper sweet nothings to your taste buds.
The shop is perfect for whispering. The sunken patio provides a lovely outdoor sanctuary, and the small quiet dining room is excellent for candle-lit evenings. The atmosphere, like the food, is simple and understated, with muted tones and an unobtrusive soundtrack. The end effect is space and cuisine that combine to support, rather than dominate, dinner conversation.
While chef/owner Michael Macfarlane (previously of El Gaucho) has done well choosing and pairing ingredients, preparation is largely up to diners. Will the smoked ham and brie be good cold on a traditional chewy baguette, or will they work better grilled on a light ciabatta? In my visits, I found the decision best left to the staff (who may decide for you regardless).
No matter your order, what arrives on the plate is consistently fine, paired with a micro-green salad dressed just right with tangy vinaigrette.
The chicken salad sandwich is a good example of Petisco's reserved style. Precisely cubed chicken combines with mayo, basil, pine nuts, bright sweet raisin, and tart apple to create a creamy, balanced sandwich filling that remains interesting without overwhelming the palate.
The breakfast sandwich is stuffed with scrambled eggs and your choice of ham or bacon. The minimalist approach yields a sandwich that's light and filling, rather than greasy and nap inducing.
Even more robust sandwiches are muted. The Angry Sicilian is essentially a classed-up grinder, stacked with prosciutto, salami, hot sopressata, hot capicola, grana padana cheese, tomato, roasted red peppers, balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. It's not so spicy as to be provocative, but the slightly salty heat works well with tangy balsamic. It might be angry, but this substantial sandwich is content to glower at you from the corner, rather than scream in your face.
Non-sandwich items are also restrained, but very good. A beet salad offers soft cheese and beet textures offset by the occasional walnut crunch and crisp greens. A shareable plate of flatbread, crostini, feta, hummus, and olive tapenade showcases the quality of the ingredients and allows for easy grazing.
With all this gentility, the rare roast beef sandwich might easily surprise you. Prepared best on grilled ciabatta, this sandwich is practically perfect. The roast beef is exceedingly tender and pairs very well with roasted red pepper, but when paired with a manchego cheese and an assertive horseradish, this is one menu item sure to interrupt your conversation.
There is a place in Portland's sandwich universe for Petisco's graceful and staid European options. Combine them with a cool, slow weekend afternoon and a glass of fantastically boozy sangria, and every other sandwich shop becomes just a part of the distant din.
OTHER NOTABLE EASTSIDE SANDWICHES
Grant's Philly Cheesesteak
There are phillys and there are Phillys. You may have to travel to the edge of the city to find Grant's (15350 NE Sandy), but the journey is worth it for this amazing sandwich. American cheese, tender steak, grilled peppers.... There's something magic in this ultra-tender and juicy creation. Even native Philadelphians give it credit.
Smoked bacon, lettuce, and heirloom beet combine in a sandwich that is one of my all-time favorites. The salt and smoke from bacon co-mingles with the slight sweetness from roasted beet to create an amazing sandwich experience. It's just one of many excellent options from Meat Cheese Bread (1406 SE Stark).
The McIsley probably shouldn't work, but it does. Biscuit, pickles, mustard, honey, and fried chicken? Just the thought of one of these marvels from Pine State Biscuits (3640 SE Belmont) is enough to make me gain five pounds. But the weight is totally worth it. You need one now.