How do you define an Italian restaurant that offers bowls of fresh squid-ink chitarra and cafeteria-style counter service, all under $12? Is this nonna’s Italian kitchen through Portland’s casual, handcrafted lens or just an updated Olive Garden for the modern age?
Grassa, the second installment from Lardo’s sandwich honcho Rick Gencarelli, falls into a category of its own. Squeezed inside Chefstable’s mini restaurant row on the West End, a chalkboard menu holds nine rotating fresh pastas, from curvaceous strozzapreti to tubular rigatoni, a few salads and antipasti, along with charmingly lowbrow cocktails (think Basque Calimocho: 50/50 cheap red wine and Coca Cola).
At lunchtime, Grassa’s line jams out the narrow doorway, packed with diners looking for quality bowls to slurp down in thirty minutes or less with no more than sawbuck in hand. Tall communal tables line the stark, white room while a giant printed eagle screeches across the wall and records spin the soundtrack to this fast-paced Italian spread.
A few dishes are good enough to make you believe in Gencarelli’s Pasta Express. Tiny pillows of agnolotti stuffed with ricotta cushion rich lamb sausage, speckled with mint and neon orange Sungold tomatoes. It tastes like its been cooked all day, but is delivered in minutes. On the other end of the spectrum, Spaghetti Aglio Olio provides simple indulgence, an olive oil-slicked tangle of chile heat and breadcrumb crunch blasted with flecks of black pepper. A few gems lay in the “Other Stuff” category: rings of calamari, crunchy fennel, and in-your-face fried lemon wheels dunked in a caper mayonnaise pop alongside cast iron trays of perfectly serviceable meatballs.
But the assembly line is far from perfect. Garlic bread can be stale and dry, baby octopus in squid ink pasta is often rubbery rather than crisp, blending with the texture of noodles in an unsettling way, and across the board pasta is under-seasoned (though there is no shortage of bold flavors: chunks of preserved lemon, potent white anchovies, and whole Calabrian chiles abound).
Gencarelli’s model raises the question: Should all pasta be served fresh? Velvety, stuffed ravioli or gossamer ribbon pappardelle can be magic, but what is spaghetti without a firm tooth? What about the structural integrity of hollow bucatini? Grassa’s pasta may not reach the heights of Ava Gene’s sagna riccia noodles or Caffe Mingo’s penne al sugo, but this level of ingredient quality, fast food expedience, and unbeatable prices make them a serious player in the ever-shifting downtown dining experience.
1205 SW Washington St.