Pasta with a sense of humor

One year of construction and $500,000 later, the glitzy Italian restaurant Pinocchio is finally open.

One year of construction and $500,000 later, the glitzy Italian restaurant Pinocchio is finally open. Located five blocks north of campus on the park blocks, Pinocchio is a rare combination of ambition, confidence and humor–owner Michael Bazzani, who planned and built the restaurant, is wholly responsible for that identity.

Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, this is a place for students to come on a special occasion. It would be great for a date before a show or the perfect place to let the parents foot the bill. Expect to spend around $15 for lunch and at least twice that for dinner. The main courses, called secondi, run from $16.95 to $28.00. If you’re on a budget, think about sharing small primi plates.

A serious restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously, the 4,000-square-foot space showcases the classic dishes from both Northern and Southern Italy that filled the New York kitchens of Bazzani’s childhood. The menu at Pinocchio, Bazzani said, is built to pull together many of the special, rare dishes from all of the regions of Italy, dishes that just can’t be found anywhere else in Portland.

“The real genesis of this menu is that it follows my life,” Bazzani said. With a grandfather, uncles and cousins working as chefs in the New York and Connecticut region of his youth, Bazzani couldn’t avoid forming a passion for seriously good food.

“It was everywhere,” Bazzani said of the Italian restaurants in New York. Every restaurant specialized in a region of Italy, he said, so patrons could have Neapolitan-style dishes one night, and dishes from Parma the next, all without leaving the block.

The menu at Pinocchio is a collection of familiar favorites, peppered with unusual but traditional items. Following the age-old Italian model of primi as appetizer course and secondi as main course, a separate category has been devoted to pasta.

Start out with a slow walk by the antipasti bar. Grilled and pickled vegetables, shaved hams and sausages are all artistically arranged on a wide marble slab. Ordered by the person, your server will assemble a platter to your specifications, and the portions are generous. A perfect light lunch or quick bite before a show, this idea is stellar. Many of the vegetables are served at room temperature, a European custom that allows the bright, clean flavors to fully develop.

Try plump, large green lip mussels in a chunky, garlicky tomato sauce worth grabbing some extra focaccia to mop up. Crispy calamari was fried lightly in rice oil after a dusting with seasoned rice flour, a novel preparation that yielded tender morsels coated in a thin crust.

Nonna’s ravioli, house-made pasta filled with spinach, porcini mushrooms and parmigiano cheese, Bazzani said, is a recipe inspired by his grandmother. Spaghetti puttanesca also employs homemade pasta from the Pinocchio kitchen, a lively tomato sauce studded with mussels, chunks of fresh tuna and the usual capers, olives and anchovies.

Main courses, or secondi, range from a stewed rabbit cacciatore with polenta to fritti di animelle, fried lamb sweetbreads served with spiced red cabbage and vincotto sauce.

Bazzani is particularly proud to have tripe on the menu, in trippa alla romana, combining a tomato mint sauce with a polenta cake and pecorino cheese.

As a diner left the restaurant on Sunday evening, Bazzani asked him how his dinner was.

“It was fantastic!” the man responded. “I haven’t been able to find tripe like that since I was in Rome.”

Don’t miss Pinocchio’s inspired, but old-school desserts. The baba au rhum was a tender cake, doused with sweet spiked syrup, filled with an incredibly delicious cannoli cream made of ricotta cheese studded with juicy candied orange bits. Keep this romantic atmosphere in mind for espresso and a treat.

The 80-seat dining room is a harmonious blend of the historic building’s old features and new fixtures. It has exposed original beams and columns in a dining room full of cozy maroon and tan banquettes. Artistic touches abound, with a fresh colorful mural painted on the front of the bar and comical paintings of the Italian masters with digitally enhanced noses resembling the restaurant’s namesake perched on the west wall.

Step into the bar area, and you’ll find marionettes suspended from the ceiling, dancing in front of a grand cabinet built to resemble a proscenium. The puppets were handmade by Corvallis artist Louie Gizyn, and reflect the careful attention that Bazzani has taken using local artists to transform the 5,000-square-foot space into a warm, inviting dining room and bar.

Bazzani brought his 29-year-old chef, Nelia Serapion, over with him from the Heathman Restaurant, where he was a manager and she was sous chef. For just a few weeks into a brand new kitchen, the food is solidly prepared and beautifully presented. Service is thoughtful and friendly, and never overbearing.

If you go…

Pinocchio Restaurant1005 SW Park Ave.(503)595-2227

Lunch: Monday-FridayDinner: Every dayBrunch: Sunday