I love Italian food. I find it hard to have an unpleasant Italian food experience.

And I love and respect tradition, honor it, and respect a place that can establish one.

So when my friends wanted to go out to dinner last week at DiNicola's, which I'd never been to (but had heard great things about), I was thrilled to take them up on the invite. And I was looking forward to what I'd find.

This review, by the way, will end up being a "pass" recommendation, but I'm going to start with what I liked.

First, the place is cramped and a bit messy in appearance. While in many ways that could be a bad thing, it fits well within the archetype of the family-owned Italian restaurant, and helps sell the place as being thoroughly what it sets out to be. When you sit there, you feel like you can expect good food.

Second, the food has some good qualities. The garlic bread (which you have to pay extra for, and which I'd rather see as a throw-in) is good. The pizzas are made with quality ingredients and have good flavor. The noodles are good quality.

Finally, the service was great, and the people were all friendly. And kids are welcomed and accomodated, which is always a plus.

The problem with the place is that the food is too rich, across the board. Nobody at our table is a dainty eater; we all had skills. I ordered a pasta dish with a "Mezza Mezza" sauce, meaning it was a mix of marinara and cream-based. My wife ordered a pizza, figuring she and my daughter would share a couple of slices and we'd take the rest home. Our friends ordered a separate pizza to split.

I couldn't get through much of my dish. Not that is tasted bad, but it just sits in your stomach like a rock. I took some home and tried again for lunch the next day, and ran into the same problem. It just sits too heavy and ends up making a person feel a bit queasy. My wife had the same issue with her pizza, and a couple of days later I had a slice and, again, felt gastronomically overwhelmed. Our friends didn't offer any actual complaints, but they didn't seem all that pleased with what they'd ended up getting.

We ended up throwing away about half of the pizza because, although it was tasty, it just wouldn't sit well.

Now, it could be that we were there on an off-night, either for us or for the restaurant. I'm open to input to that point, and I'm actually interested in getting some feedback from readers on this place. But given my experience, I'm not going to be heading back anytime soon, unless I hear some pretty clear indications that I'm being unduly harsh...

Alameda Cafe

Portland has a lot of great breakfast joints. I love Roux, I love the Tin Shed, I love Fat City Cafe, and I (at least) enjoy Marco's. Cadillac Cafe's great, and the 24 Hour Hotcake House on Powell is quite good as well. And there are many, many more that I haven't tried yet.

In fact, aside from the franchise-type places (Denny's, Elmer's, IHOP, Shari's), it's hard to find a place in Portland with a bad breakfast. The only one jumping to mind at the moment is The Red Star downtown, which is over-priced and over-rated and which has food that seems to be the food equivalent of form over substance, which is to say that it's pretty but generally tasteless.

One of the places that's moved up my list quickly, though, is the Alameda Cafe.

In general, there's a lot of good stuff in the Alameda area of NE Portland. Stanich's is generally my favorite place for a fatburger. Amalfi's has good Italian food. The Alameda Brewpub has great salads. So it only makes sense that one of Portland's finer breakfast spots would be in the area as well.

My general approach there is to go for a scramble. I've had the breakfast omelette and liked it a lot, and I've had one of the benedicts and it was great, but their scrambles are a can't-miss proposition that are substantial and hearty while also being just fancy enough to be distinctive. They also have great home-fried potatoes on the side.

My wife is a huge fan of their special house french toast, which is unique in that it's coated with cinnamon and corn flakes, and is absolutely fantastic.

One of the huge factors for a family guy in a breakfast place is family-friendliness. Although the place looks a bit pretentious from outside, it's never provided a problem for us and our daughter during our several visits in her first two years. The wait-staff is super-friendly and accomodating and noone ever looks at you with the stink-eye when you walk in with a kid.

I've seen the knock (over at the Portland Food and Drink blog, in particular) that the place is a bit over-priced, and to the extent that it's more expensive than one of the larger omelette-mills, that's true. But in the grand scheme of breakfast joints, I think the prices are about middle-of-the-road, and the food justifies the prices.

So add one to the list of great Portland breakfast joints...


New Reviews Coming

In the next day or so:

Alameda Cafe (breakfast)
DiNicola's Italian Restaurant
Jake's Grill

We'll also run our first forum question. Check back for more later!