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Grassa gets pasta's flavorful texture, details just right

Bread & Brew


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Squid ink chitarra at Grassa intertwines matte black pasta and tender baby octopus tenticles and leaves a lemony wake. Food, especially pasta, speaks for itself at Grassa, which has a bare-bones environment.I love fresh pasta — its springy texture, its simple floury taste, the way it snuggles up to other ingredients of all kinds, from unctuous egg yolks to acidic tomato sauce to rugged pork ragu.

And house-made pasta does all this beautifully at Grassa, where an evolving menu of about 10 pasta dishes is served every day, along with meatballs, garlic bread, and a few salads.

The basic idea here is no different from millions of other family-friendly pasta joints, including a number of large, successful national chains. So why would you go to Grassa?

It’s a little more stylish, for one thing. A bit more efficient than most. And the noodles are really, really good.

It’s like asking why you would go to Lardo when there are so many other places to buy a sandwich. Grassa is run by Rick Gencarelli, who also owns the two Lardo locations. As at the sandwich shops, you order at a counter and take your seat, sometimes at the same long table as other customers. There’s a no-nonsense list of cocktails, which here feature Campari and limoncello. Grassa also is in the same building as one of the two Lardo locations, in the west end of downtown. And the name is another variation on “fat,” this time translated into Italian.

The look is extremely bare bones, with workers’ aprons piled in the dining room and retractable extension cords hanging from the ceiling. The open kitchen is so open that if you sit in the back booth, you’re actually behind the serving counter. During the day, you can watch pasta being turned out of a surprisingly small and efficient little mill. Trays of cooling tomatoes and breadcrumbs are stacked nearby.

Meatballs are appropriately hefty, although not too dense. You can taste the pork and the beef clearly though they’re burrowing in red sauce and showered with parmesan cheese. They’re lined up in a cute little cast iron tray that made me expect them to be sizzling hot. In fact, they were barely heated through.

Carbonara, here, is both simple and almost overwhelming. Fat, tender strands of bucatini wrap around chewy, salty chunks of cured pork belly, blanketed with grana cheese and salty, buttery breadcrumbs. Hidden in the center is a whole poached egg that bursts out with yellow yolk when you pierce it. It’s almost ridiculously rich and starchy, awakened with loud raps of black pepper.

A dish that requires a delicate touch is just as well executed. Squid ink chitarra is a matte black pasta, flavored with a mild seafood sweetness and cut with wire into flat, elastic strands. They intertwine affectionately with the tentacles of tender baby octopus that wander through the bowl, leaving a lemony wake. Crumbles of chorizo add a little body, a little salt and fat.

Texture is crucial when you’re talking about pasta, and gnocchi are the litmus test.

At Grassa, they’re softened to a fluff with ricotta. They deflate and disappear in your mouth, almost too quickly. Being so delicate, they do well with a light sauce of fresh tomatoes, with ribbons of basil and enough parmesan to bring home the sense of generosity that dominates here.

It’s all so straightforward. Only gradually do you notice the details. The dangling yellow extension cords match the employees’ T-shirts, which match the numbered disks that you set on your table so that servers can deliver your food.

It’s more carefully considered than it seems, and it’s located in a neighborhood that is increasingly becoming a part of town that attracts out-of-towners. Grassa is a good ambassador, a place where someone with average pasta expectations can be pleasantly surprised by the high quality of everyday, affordable food in Portland.

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, 1205 S.W. Washington St., 503-241-1133, www.grassapdx.com, entrés $7-$12

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