Eat Here Now

Little Italy Lands at a New Bakery in Lents

Bella's Italian Bakery and Market brings Godfather-level pastries and focaccia to Southeast Portland.

By Benjamin Tepler December 21, 2018 Published in the January 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Portland has some fine Italian spots. Access to great Italian wine, cheese, and salumi. Neapolitan pizza? We’re drowning in it. What we don’t have is a real Italian bakery—cannoli Rocco and Clemenza would kill for. Now, with Bella’s Italian Bakery and Market, baking talent Michelle Vernier is bringing Godfather-level pastries and focaccia to Lents. 

Vernier, an accomplished pastry chef with stints all around the city, spent three years at the Lents farmers market testing her jam squares and almond amaretti before opening up shop at SE Woodstock and 91st Avenue in October. The dream? To honor the legacy of her family’s salsamenterìa (deli) near Perugia and bring that rich food heritage to her own neighborhood. 

Let’s just say Vernier, 38, is channeling some serious nonna magic. The cannoli, an irrefutable benchmark, is freshly fried and pipetted to order: a blistered, shatter-crisp pastry cigar oozing house ricotta—sweet, creamy, tangy, and studded with chocolate chips.

Other rarities not often seen outside East Coast Little Italies include sfogliatelle: multilayered, crackle-crisp phyllo clamshells filled with ricotta custard and served hot. (Heads up: they’re weekend-only and sell out in minutes.) Patrons have been known to drive from as far as Centralia for a taste. Meanwhile, lemon ciambella—essentially an Italian cake doughnut—sits under a shower of sweet cinnamon sugar with a weightless, zesty crumb that puts all other cake doughnuts to shame.

It’s not all sweets; you can put together a square meal here. Slabs of focaccia, nearly two inches thick and more cratered than the dark side of the moon, come lavishly studded with olives and sprinkled with thyme and big flakes of sea salt. “Grass Pie,” a Vernier family heirloom made with wilted chicory and ricotta, has an all-star butter crust. Seasonal stratas—like one with squash, garlic, and melty cheese—taste like bread pudding gone awry in a wonderful, savory way.

Bella’s is still getting its bearings: in the coming months Vernier plans to kick-start lunch specials—with Italian grinders, half-pours of Italian bottles, and Peroni beer on the cheap—and pizza nights. Right now, the “market” side is a simple shrine to local grower Future Farm’s spice blends, balms, and flowers, but a lineup of local and imported Italian foodstuffs is slowly growing.

If this all sounds too good to be true, suspend your disbelief. Yes, you’ll find good-not-great chocolate cookies, and fudgy walnut sea salt brownies from the mandated baked goods lineup. But when it comes to Italianate goodies, Bella’s is a true champion.

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