In early March, Don Salamone's life was sizzling. He was the king of Portland’s classic burger revival, with a thriving downtown food cart and a hopping takeout window at popular southeast bar Dig A Pony. Off-duty chefs and fast food review titan/famed Simpsons writer Bill Oakley were among the loyalists lining up for his flawless, crackly-edged smash patty, devoured with chunky sweet onions, sweaty American cheese, a curl of lettuce, and Salamone's remastered Thousand Island sauce, whirled in a sensuous, sinister ooze.
Meanwhile, he was quietly scheming to go big. “I was milliseconds from signing a lease for a brick-and-mortar in Beaverton,” he says. The plan was to create a Portland analog to Chicago's Au Cheval, known as an A-list burger destination but also a place for eclectic eats and good cocktails. The hope was to bridge Salamone's unexpected journey as a cult burger-meister and his higher aspirations with kitchen chops gleaned in Michelin-starred restaurants like Joël Robuchon and Guy Savoy in Las Vegas.
Then the world flipped upside-down. Salamone put the new project on hold while trying to pivot to a burger takeout model. “Burgers don't travel well and make for terrible leftovers—you have to eat it right then and there.”
Now, like other chefs determined to stay open in some form, Salamone is tapping his family's deep Sicilian roots to find joy, comfort, and a life raft. Beginning Tuesday, April 7, Burger Stevens is morphing into Stevens Italiano.
The plan: one menu, one set dinner, picked up to-go, for $25. The setup mirrors other pandemic-era takeout spots. You order online (by midnight the night before), pick a time slot, and Salamone will pop the goods into your trunk outside of Dig A Pony (736 SE Grand Ave.)
He's launching with chicken cacciatore, rigatoni with his mom's tomato sauce, garlic bread, and a Caesar salad he hopes would make his former boss, famed chef Bradley Ogden, proud. “When we made this at Bradley's restaurant, it had to be exact: big lemons, big anchovy flavor, the garlicky croutons half-dressed—a little crunchy and soggy.” The chicken he says, reminds him of his dad's roasting and braising. “It's very Sicilian—heavy on tomatoes, garlicky, briny and tender. I get very emotional talking about it, just honoring my family.”
Next up is eggplant parm, with details extracted from phone conversations with his mom, noting “it's more like an eggplant terrine, with lots of thin, crunchy layers; not just some thick-cut, mozzarella-drenched version.” Saturday will be all about braciole, made with prime chuck flap meat from Creekstone Farms. “I didn't want to spend so much on the meat,” he confides, “but it's so tender, just out of control, like brisket.”
For safety, Salamone adds, “it's just me in the kitchen. I’m being as rigorously sanitary as possible. I'm constantly cleaning, wearing a mask and gloves. It's on my mind throughout the day. It's all I think about.” Hospital hygiene while trying to nail the perfect rigatoni? This is the new normal.