A LITTLE HISTORY: The original Genoa closed in November of 2008 after 37 years of service. With that closure, many in Portland's food community felt they'd lost a friend (or perhaps a friend's Italian grandmother). In December of 2009, the restaurant was reopened, helmed by a new executive chef, David Anderson. But Anderson and his partners weren't content with revitalizing the old Genoa; they expanded their venture into an adjacent corner storefront, left it to the mercy of a trio of design firms, installed a menu of Italian-inspired small plates, entrées, and sandwiches, and called it Accanto (literally "next door").
The two restaurants contrast each other in an interesting way: One is casual, while the other is formal. One offers an intimate, languid dining experience, while the other is more boisterous and communal. Both showcase Chef Anderson's skill, but it seems apparent one is given a bit more care than the other.
AT THE DRESSED-DOWN Accanto, the space is filled with light even on an overcast day. The large bar corralling both booze and kitchen makes the space feel down-to-earth and welcoming. Though it looks quite spacious, it manages to feel intimate.
Walking through the front door you are directed to sit at any open seat, which can result in indecisive milling as you look for a suitable table (turns out they're all suitable). This is the first sign of the restaurant's laidback style—a style equally apparent in jocular wait staff, who manage to project an air of both friendliness and refinement while remaining professional and on-point.
The menu is a manageable something-for-everyone kind of affair, allowing diners to splurge on a $17 braised pork shank or nibble on a $9 plate of fritto misto.
The latter is a fine snack. It features prawns and squid deep-fried in a light, crisp batter, accompanied by similarly deep-fried olives, lemon rounds, and fennel. The consistency of crunch among ingredients works very well, while olives and lemon contrast the subtle fish flavor with zip and tang.
The pork shank osso bucco is a different matter. Here, down-to-earth pork stands in for the standard osso bucco veal, while common white beans stand in for risotto. The result is tender and juicy meat with flavor similar to Sunday pot roast. Unfortunately the sherry jus tastes over-salted with an odd heat that rasps the back of the throat. If it were in balance with the delicate hints of citrus, dill, and cinnamon in the gremolata, the salty heat would work as a fine counterpoint, but as it stands, less pleasant sensations dominate. Luckily the best of osso bucco remains: lovely marrow to be sucked from the bones with gusto.
Few items on the menu are underwhelming. The fresh focaccia is a bit too dense and doesn't improve when topped with gorgonzola, walnuts, and caramelized onions. An albacore tuna sandwich with capers and lemon is all right, though it lacks any zing to set it apart.
By and large, however, there is much to enjoy. The braised wild boar sandwich is wonderful, coming off like the refined bastard offspring of a meatball sub and a Philly cheesesteak. Paired with delicately latticed homemade potato chips and a mild pickled veggie giardiniera, it's just about the perfect lunch.
Saffron arancini are very nice. The little crisped rice balls ooze a mix of house-made ricotta and Dungeness crab, complemented with just a touch of mineral saffron tones.
Accanto's pasta also hits the mark. Little triangles of panzotti offer delicate, fresh, spring vegetable flavors, with a little lemon and grassy nettle.
A black tangle of squid-ink spaghetti hides clams and wonderfully spicy chorizo—all of which lend flavors to a pool of tomatoey broth. The focaccia is best deployed here to sop up the goodness, though it's more than a little irksome that ordering a plate of the bread adds $5 to the tab.
With a decent cocktail list and some good wines, Accanto comes off as a casual neighborhood joint embellished with a bit of expensive flavor. But mostly it piques curiosity about what's happening on the other side of the shared wall, at Genoa. There are some missteps at Accanto, but they're few. If Chef Anderson's food does this well in a casual setting, what happens when the stakes (and manners and prices) are raised?
Eventually, it was a question too difficult to resist.
THIS IS THE STORY of curiosity fulfilled in five courses. While one dinner isn't enough to make any credible judgment about the consistency of the service, it certainly furthers the understanding of what Chef Anderson is presenting at his culinary couplet at the corner of SE 29th and Belmont.
If Accanto is "neighborhood casual," Genoa is "special-occasion destination." The restaurant has a feeling of cloistered austerity, shielded as it is from the street with heavy curtains. Inside, the dining room is all dark tones with an almost mortuary-like solemnity, save for the inoffensive selection of quiet modern music and chandeliers that break up the brown walls with nifty geometric shadows.
Considering the menu offers a curated experience of regional Italian dishes that changes monthly, the restaurant can feel like a kind of culinary museum. At least that was the effect with a selection of dishes culled from the Italian Riviera. The weighty interior was sometimes an odd contrast to a prix fixe menu of light Italian fare.
The contrast wasn't immediately apparent with a first course of burrida, a brown fish soup surrounding a single craggy crouton island. Rich and full bodied, the soup was just fishy enough, with hints of white wine, a touch of tomato tang, and some very delicate fruity flavors from extra virgin olive oil—all of it soaking into the single crouton, which acted as a crunchy finale.
Corzetti con salsa noci was the star of the pasta course. Fantastically light hand-stamped pasta "coins" were bathed in a luscious walnut pesto offset by wilted mustard greens. Here was a taste of late spring, a warm Italian breeze in the dim dining room.
Much different was ravioli Genovese, with its packets of intensely meaty braised veal and sweetbreads. Tossed in the veal's braising juices, the ravioli relied too heavily on a single note and lacked the dynamics of its partner. If the corzetti was spring, the ravioli was a dark winter's drowse.
After all the richness and butter, a course of simply dressed arugula salad was perfect for scouring the palate clean. The freshness of radish, red onion, fennel, fava bean, and pecorino cheese worked perfectly with spicy arugula to create a lovely little lift in the dinner—like taking a breath before plunging into deep waters. And those waters became deep indeed.
A main course of merluzzo—olive oil-poached black cod—was simply amazing. The fish was impossibly light, and practically melted in the mouth as the delicate cod flavor contrasted with a dollop of zippy olive tapenade. It was an experience to savor, but also felt as if it went too quickly. Luckily, potato and sorrel gratin shared the plate, offering its substantial terrestrial texture to the ephemeral fish.
An entrée of pan-roasted pheasant breast, petti di fagiono, was another story altogether. The breast was tender, though on the dry side. Still, the crisped skin was fantastically flavored, if nearly over salted. The meat was rivaled by the vegetable medley sharing the plate: light, fresh turnips, English peas, soft fiddlehead ferns, and wild mushrooms were dispatched well before the remainder of the breast.
A request that the server bring the "prettiest" dessert resulted in bomboloni with chocolate sauce: three cinnamon-powdered balls of fried dough filled with a sweet, creamy, nearly custardy filling. More obscene than pretty, it was a decadent finale to a thoughtful, well-prepared dinner that hit nearly every beat.
The whole thing was made better with the help of a wonderful sommelier who at the beginning of the meal helped steer my obnoxiously cheap and woefully ignorant wine sensibilities to two delightful glasses: a pinot gris that fit the first three courses nicely, and red paired to my main.
Curiosity now sated, the few flaws at Accanto seem a bit more glaring. The dishes at Genoa feel more practiced and measured. So why isn't Accanto consistently hitting Genoa's gold standard?
While both places offer completely different dining experiences, they are under the helm of the same executive chef, who puts his name on both menus. Given that, it would be nice to see a touch more of Genoa's careful hand evident in Accanto's kitchen, a consistency in quality that would make the Italian couplet truly sing.