Paccini ?” near campus, nearly good

Almost every campus suffers from the absence of quality, near-campus dining options. We students have a habit of being concerned with feeling “full” over eating nutritious, flavorful meals. And why not? After buying books and beer we’re poor, and with classes and work we’re busy. Thus, we reach the perfect near campus trifecta ?” a place with inexpensive booze and food that is also an OK place to study: Paccini.

What makes Paccini so rare is their attempt to meld the modern American bistro-style of restaurant with the more traditional campus bar atmosphere. The clean, well-lit and carefully designed interior co-exists with a reasonably priced happy hour. Dishes like risotto with Oregon wild mushrooms, fresh sage and prosciutto are served alongside the large screen TV, featuring mostly sports programming, and the pool table.

Not everything thrives in this exotic environment though. Service, when it exists, is often surly if not downright combative. This has improved some with an increase in staffing and some new servers, but service is still quite spotty. Portions, especially from the happy hour menu, tend to be on the small side and are served on standard dinner plates, making them seem positively miniscule. The dishes on the ambitious menu often show a lack of attention to key details. The absence of the kind of techniques that can make a mediocre dish stupendous causes most of the food here to fall flat.

A perfect example of what I am talking about is the hand-made gnocchi with Oregon wild mushrooms, oregano, spinach, roasted garlic and oven-dried tomatoes. Gnocchi is a type of pasta made with potato that is notoriously difficult to prepare without it becoming gummy like over-worked potato, or flavorless like more traditional wheat pasta. Gnocchi, when done correctly, has a subtle nutmeg and pepper flavor and a consistency not unlike other pasta, offering slight resistance to the teeth, al dente, without being sticky. To help achieve this aim, gnocchi is usually shaped by hand, looking like a disc with a thumbprint in the middle.

At Paccini the gnocchi is served as a terrific looking dish with wilted spinach, mushrooms, garlic and tomato in a robust, if not strident wine sauce coupled with the pan-fried pasta, which has the proper flavor. Only one problem ?” they forgo the traditional shaping, which can be time intensive, for simple slices from a cylinder of dough. The reason for the traditional shape became abundantly clear: the centers of the gnocchi were gummy and unpalatable. The depression in the center is intended to help them cook evenly. This one oversight ruined what would otherwise have been a pleasant lunch.

The happy hour menu is its own little minefield. Small portions on large plates contribute to a sense of disappointment that the quality of the food doesn’t justify. On a recent trip I ordered the linguine, which was stupendous, well flavored and delicately balanced, with a pleasant hint of clam and a creamy finish. Even the noodles were terrific, perfectly al dente and not overdone, as in most Portland restaurants. The problem was that the small portion was swimming on a large dinner plate. It arrived at my table cold as a result of being spread out so thin, and after I had taken two bites, a passing server asked if I was done with it, as there appeared to be so little on my plate.

The quality of many of the ingredients used at Paccini also shows vast room for improvement. I grew up on the coast and know second-rate mussels when I see and smell them. Avoid the mussels in saffron at all costs, unless you like the scent and taste of a bay at low tide. Their house-made sauces, usually exceptional, can also show the tell tale sourness and acidity from being made with cheap wine.

Don’t get the impression, however, that there is nothing good on the menu. The panini sandwiches, on house made focaccia, are always a good bet at a reasonable price. I recommend the lunch special: a half-sandwich with a salad or cup of soup for less than five dollars. The risotto also comes highly recommended to mushroom lovers, as does the ground steak mozzarella mushroom burger with garlic fries. Paccini’s garlic fries have to be among the best in Portland. They are well cooked without being soggy or greasy, and are a definite must have for solo study sessions. For group study try the antipasto platter which could provide munchies for four at a reasonable price, if you all chip in.

Overall I like Paccini, even though I am disappointed by it often. Many of the problems I mention above are a result of the fact that Paccini doesn’t yet know if it wants to be upscale and cater mostly to older students, faculty and staff or if it wants to bring in the younger crowd. If they decide to go for the highbrow business, expect increases in the quality of service, attention to detail in cooking, quality of ingredients and of course, price. If they decide to go for the student crowd, expect a less ambitious menu and less refined atmosphere. I hope that they are able to forge a middle way, paying close attention to preparing and serving simple food in an exceptional way in a clean, smoke-free environment which makes relaxing and studying that much more fun.


Paccini is located at 1717 S.W. Park Ave., on the first floor of the Ione Plaza. Their phone number is 503-219-8000 and they have a website at

Reservations not required.