There’s no shortage of Italian restaurants in Portland, but year in and year out, one has consistently distinguished itself from the pack. It’s a place where authentic Italian cuisine structured from high-quality ingredients delights in a decidedly unpretentious way. Welcome to Nostrana.
Nostrana was opened in 2005, and is routinely rated one of the best Italian restaurants in Portland by various magazines and food blogs. Six-time James Beard Award Finalist Cathy Whims mans the helm as co-owner and executive chef.
Whims isn’t new to Portland’s Italian food scene, as she was also part of the team and eventual co-owner of the upscale Italian restaurant, Genoa. After studying Latin at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Whims went on to understudy with Marcella and Victor Hazan in Venice. Upon completing her work there, she moved on to the School for American Chefs, where she worked with Madeleine Kamman.
Her culinary master-class continued as she left for the Langhe region of Italy. Her first stop was in Barbaresco, where she cooked at Antica Torre Trattoria. Next up was Alba, where she studied with Marco Forneris at Osteria La Libera.
With Nostrana, Whims combines everything she’s learned to create one of Portland’s premiere Italian restaurants. Housed in an old grocery store, Nostrana’s soaring arched wood ceiling lends it a cavernous feel. Joyful chatter and welcoming laughter echoes off the rafters.
The first thing you notice upon entering is the large pile of apple and cherry wood sitting next to the front door, whose fate lies in the oven. Tables are widely spaced and the cork floors add a nice touch. Although it may be noisy at times, Nostrana’s welcoming staff lends the expansive lodge-like setting a convivial vibe.
Nostrana is well-known for its epic wine list. They have a huge variety of Italian and Oregon pinots. Their house drinks are also worth your attention. On a warm summer day, you might sit out on the patio and enjoy the simply refreshing spuma della casa, a light combination of Gasparini Brut Prosecco and rhubarb purée.
For dinner, start the evening with the delicious house-made charcuterie, a who’s who of Italian goodness. Begin with the seared beef tongue and crispy pork trotter. Then make your way to the vin santo and cherry liver pate. Ciccioli smoked trout mousse, pickles and rhubarb compote round out the plate in a way you’re unlikely to forget.
The bruschetta is fantastic. It comes hot out of the oven sprinkled with melted cheese and topped with dark red roasted cherry tomatoes. As the bread crunches between your teeth, the tomatoes explode onto the warm cheese with bursts of flavor.
Nostrana’s biggest draw is its wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza. The slightest hint of char adds a perfect amount of smoke to the chewy, thin crust. One delectable topping combination includes Calabrese salami and pickled peppers set atop provolone and house made mozzarella. Drizzled honey adds the punctuation mark.
If you’re not in the mood for pizza, try the braised Anderson Ranch lamb shoulder. It’s tender and moist, sprinkled with capers, and sits atop a crispy risotto cake. Next to it lies an appealing pile of grilled asparagus covered in chunks of garlic.
Whim’s idea of Italian is executed in typical Portland style, with sustainability and local, seasonal ingredients in mind. In addition to Anderson ranch lamb, she uses local Warden Hill Farm pork and St. Helens steak. A large portion of their produce, from rhubarb and spinach to mushrooms and kale, comes from local farmers.
Once you finish dinner, allow the desserts to transport you into world of sugary goodness. The Pizzeria Mozza’s butterscotch budino is smothered in Jacobson vanilla salt, caramel and crème fraîche. It’s moist and oozes with smooth notes of butterscotch and chocolatey flavor. As if that weren’t enough, it comes with fig salame and crackers.
A wood-oven baked crisp composed of apple and rhubarb will make you feel right at home. The ingredients are combined in a ceramic dish, topped with sugar, and cooked for 20 minutes in a 700 degree oven. It arrives at your table steaming, the sugar dark and caramelized. As it sizzles, your server reveals a small pitcher and decides the best way to cool it off is with a dousing of thick almond cream.
It’s recommended you end the night with an amaro, which is a traditional Italian herbal liquore. The varieties range from bittersweet to sharply astringent, and it’s the perfect way to top of an evening filled with the epicurean treasures of Italy.
Nostrana is located at 1401 SE Morrison Street in Portland, Oregon, 97214. They are open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11am to 2pm. Dinner is served from 5pm to 10pm Sunday through Thursday, and until 11pm on Friday and Saturday. Nostrana is regularly packed, so reservations are highly recommended. For reservation or menu information, visit their website or give them a call at (503)234-2427.
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.