With friends visiting from out of town, we needed a table for eight in a setting where all of the diners could hear each other and join in the conversation. That definitely eliminated some choices (Toro Brava, for instance, with no reservations and almost impossible to seat eight at a time). The get-together was scheduled for a Tuesday evening (May 26); Tuesday is usually an excellent time to find an uncrowded restaurant in Portland, but we ran into unexpected difficulties:
First choice: Fife. Closed permanently May 3 (owner/chef moving to North Carolina).
Second choice: Iorio. Closed due to the Memorial Day weekend.
Third choice: Ciao Vito. Closed due to the Memorial Day weekend
As we started going down our list, getting more and more desperate, we discovered that the day after Memorial Day just may be the most difficult day in the year to get seated in a Portland restaurant. All the restaurants that normally observe a day off either Sunday or Monday moved the day off to Tuesday, while all of the restaurants that normally observe a day off on Tuesday observed their regular practice. It probably is more difficult to get a dinner reservation on the evening after Memorial Day than it is on Christmas Day.
Finally, we thought of Caffe Allora. We had never been inside, and had seen it from outside only during the daytime, when it is a more or less conventional coffee house. (The owner came to Portland during the establishment of the late lamented Torrefazione chain.) The premises are not large, and the walls are pretty much unadorned hard surfaces, which usually translates to noisy. But we were near-desperate, and called early in the day Tuesday to make a reservation of a table for eight that evening. Bruno said he could do that. And he did.
Cutting to the chase, every aspect of the evening was delightful. The menu tends strongly to the informal, lighter fare: there is nothing that would qualify as a secondi course in more pretentious (and much more expensive) Italian regional fare, just antipasto, piatti fredi, and pasta dishes. But (with one exception), the realization on the plate of the promise of the menu overachieved. (The tuna in the seafood carpaccio would have been properly fresh earlier in the day, perhaps; though not spoiled, it was definitely fishy.) The waiter was friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful, but not intrusive or obsequious.
But the real surprise was the pricing. We remember menu prices like these, but not recently. And, being fairly familiar with the retail prices in stores of several of the reasonably extensive and admirably varied selection of wines on the wine menu, we were just short of astounded by how low Caffe Allora's mark-up is by Portland standards. The outrageous mark-up (or corkage fee) of most Portland fine dining establishments has successfully kept us as infrequent visitors. We have just about given up on Castagna for that reason, for instance. But the pricing at Caffe Allora encouraged us to order another bottle when the first ran low, then another, and we never had to start thinking about taking out a second mortgage to pay for it as we would at Castagna.
We shall return.
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