Starting with the name A Cena (come to supper), everything about the restaurant in Portland, Oregon is welcoming; it feels like you are being invited into an Italian home.
The general manager, Eugene Martello, and the chef, Gabriele Gabreski (Locatelli family), have roots in Italy and fond memories of their visits there. They treasure their experience of the simplicity and elegance of Italian cuisine and relaxed dining that they have gleaned while spending time in Italy.
After just one visit to the restaurant, you feel like you are part of a happy, prosperous family. In fact, not only the customers, but also the staff is treated very much like family. Every year for the last eight years or so a number of the managers and the staff (the remaining crew “keeps the lights on at home”) go to Italy. Why do they go to Italy? There are many good reasons that the management cangive like going to Italy to get the latest recipes, but it really comes down to everyone having a chanceto experience directly la dolce vita (the good life).
One of the tenets of the restaurant is to have a variety of motivated staff from diverse backgrounds, with the common ingredient being a passion for preparing authentic Italian food and a willingness to learn. The chef and sous-chef come from an Italian background, but the rest of the staff are from places as diverse as Mexico, Africa and the Middle East.
The management of the restaurant extend that community feeling to their involvement with the local Italian community in Portland, supporting events like the Festa Italiana, the Italian Film Festival and Scuola Italiana di Portland each year.
Gabrielle is a lively, passionate chef with knowledge of cooking gleaned from years of cooking in the kitchen with his Italian aunts and his Italian mother. While many of his trips have been to Bologna because his mother is from that region, much of his family currently reside in Rome. One of his fondest memories growing up was on Sundays when five mothers, with children in tow, would come over and make hand-made pasta. The whole group would make the time-consuming and ultimately very satisfying pasta collaboratively, in a kind of “Italian assembly line”. If you have never participated in this ritual, it is worth experiencing at least once in your life. The process is one part serious cooking with considerable skill and equal parts sharing a common experience, drinking good wine, and having a chance to get together with friends and family…and don’t forget, you get to eat that pasta with an amazing, freshly-prepared sauce for dinner when you are done!
Eugene is a natural born storyteller and a strict vegetarian who loves the fact that many Italian dishes are inherently vegetarian. The restaurant in Portland is vegetarian-friendly, even though there are plenty of meat and fish dishes available on the menu. Eugene’s grandparents were from Italy, mostly Naples and Sicily. He remembers fondly that his Nonna taught him about Italian cuisine and he remains passionate about it.
One key element to Italian cuisine is the use of fresh ingredients. The staff at A Cena have introduced an interesting twist on the supply of fresh produce: many of the fresh vegetables and greens come from a common garden maintained by the owner, chef and staff that supplies the restaurant. Tending to the common garden is integrated into the rhythm of running the restaurant.
The food is prepared fresh every day and it is unapologetically authentic Italian cuisine, but with some practical adaptations like the use of locally-available ingredients such as chanterelle mushrooms. They will also graciously make accommodations for those not familiar with that typical style, such as de-boning the whole fish at the table, if asked.
On the day of the visit they served Garganelli alla Norcia( house-made fennel sausage in cream), Potato Gnocchi (dumplings), and Branzino al forno (whole fish). The Italian-style multi-course meal started with house-made focaccia, and appetizers like arancini (risotto croquettes) and polpino (grilled octopus salad). The gnocchi dish was vegetarian. The meal finished with dessert and coffee. Pasquale Madeddu, one of the owners of Caffè Umbria, joined the group and the discussion naturally went towards coffee, and the importance of that finishing touch. Lots of tips were swapped on how to make good espresso in the restaurant as well as how to make the perfect espresso at home using an Italian moka (stovetop coffee percolator). Perhaps Eugene summed it up best: “the coffee [from Caffè Umbria] is really the best! It is even better than what I drink at home.”
Already anticipating the opportunity to taste their Italian cuisine? The restaurant is in the heart of the trendy Sellwood neighborhood, so not hard to find. Passionate about preparing Italian dishes at home? Gabriele is willing to share one of his recipes with you! They have lovingly prepared a list of recipes to share with intrepid chefs from all backgrounds. The newsletter has details.
“A Cena!” Time for supper!