807 NW 21st, 226-4646

Smack in the middle of the NW 21st restaurant nucleus is Caffé Mingo, which has a reputation for being the best in Portland, and consistently has lines out the door. So here's the question: Does Mingo actually deserve this sterling reputation?

The clear mark of any great Italian joint is the antipasto (which Caffé Mingo calls the Assaggino Assortito--cute), and Mingo's rates pretty well, with intriguing little salads, crostini, thinly sliced salami, and no boring cold grilled vegetables. The bread in the Panzanella salad, which, jammed with the freshest possible tomatoes and smartly dressed, is so perfectly drowned in oil that one bite is like a delicious bath. But it would be too much to expect to find an entire menu of great antipasti, since most generally suck; the roasted cauliflower wrapped in prosciutto (maybe some aioli?) is less inspired, and the plain, al dente garbanzos are bland.

As for entrees, the mushroom ravioli with a walnut cream sauce is tender, but lacks balance, and the result carries a salty, earthy intensity that's over the top. And though the baked semolina gnocchi is well-executed with a bold red sauce and fluffy, rich dumplings, it made me miss the cozy comfort of a perfectly light potato gnocchi.

After dinner it's Moscato, with wafts of pear and caramel. But why, oh why, did I order the Tiramisu served in CHEESECAKE form?! Everything beautifully diverse about Tiramisu--bitter espresso, sweet soft mascarpone, delectable booziness, and the oasis of ladyfinger pillows, is squelched when served as cheesecake. Too sweet, too rich, too much.

Caffé Mingo is a solid effort backed by warm service, fresh ingredients, and is definitely worth a visit. But still, when it comes to handmade pasta, Mingo could do even better; I couldn't help but dream of the dollars I'd have saved from a quick walk down the street to Justa Pasta.