When was the last time you tasted a dessert so vibrant, so surprisingly lively, that it made you laugh out loud? Have you ever tasted an appetizer so salty, sweet and fatty that it deserved a round of applause, as if it had just performed a magic trick? I was lucky enough to have both experiences at Tartuca, the sensational new Italian restaurant occupying the former Radar space on North Mississippi Avenue.
Before the fall chill sets in, you might be drawn to Tartuca’s front and back patios, which are serene and laid-back, ideal settings for sharing a bottle of red wine and a good chat with locals. friends. But the cramped brick interior, lined with local art, is where you’ll have dinner and a show: Chef Jamie Wilcox operates a bustling machine from an open kitchen, pumping out dishes that are both iconic Italian and quintessentially Oregon.
“We have a really great team, and we get all of our produce from local farms and farmers’ markets,” says Wilcox. “We had a lot of freedom to supply ourselves as we wanted. I’m really excited about this.
This includes enjoying the bounty of Sauvie Island and cutting bay leaves from neighbors’ home gardens.
“Everything is super seasonal,” adds Wilcox, “so if you come in a month, things are probably going to be a lot different.”
So if, like me, you’ve lamented Portland’s recent barrage of fried chicken, smashburgers, and soft serve, and you’re craving some of that good old Northwest farm-to-table elegance of the Pacific, she hides in plain sight of Wilcox. change menu.
Homemade Radiatori with Sungold Tomatoes and Kale ($20) reads rich and spicy on the page, but is actually incredibly refreshing on a 90-degree day. A gorgeous wooden bowl is slipped in with a halo of ethereal Calabrian chili ricotta, which surrounds a swirling stack of springy al dente pasta nuggets topped with a mini salad of spring onions and basil. The summer squash ($12) with sun-dried tomato pesto, pine nuts and Castelvetrano olives is roasted and salted. The tender sweetness of the Caesar’s Little Nuggets ($12) contrasts with the parmesan fries that crunch like Royal Umami croutons.
The bucatini ($22) is an incredibly thoughtful and cozy dish – you could almost call it a vegetarian carbonara. The thickly sliced lobster mushrooms are meaty and perfectly cooked, the whole Sungold tomatoes are bursts of sunshine, and the bright orange yolk pooled at the bottom of the bowl is reminiscent of Amy Adams trying her first poached egg in Julia and Julia“It tastes like…cheese sauce. Yum.”
You’ll see most tables sharing pizzas, and Tartuca’s most popular current offerings are all firecrackers. #2 ($16) with red tomato sauce, chunks of fresh yellow tomatoes, purple basil and cloves of candied garlic, has a defiant personality – there are so many layers of sweetness and sharpness that it would be rude to classify it as a simple Daisy. #6 ($20), with silky sheep’s milk cheese, pesto and zucchini, benefits the most from Tartuca which bucks the sourdough pizza trend, which can often be distracting. Instead, this batter’s lightness allows more subtle ingredients to shine, and its olive oil-brushed crust shimmers like a flavorful donut. #4 ($21) is just about perfect, with spicy lamb sausage, lightly sweetened caramelized onions, tiny roasted whole mushrooms, garlic oil, and Humboldt Fog cheese from Cypress Grove. Presenting this brielike goat cheese with its signature vegetable ash on a pizza with a crispy char base is a stroke of genius.
The desserts are also playful and compelling. The olive oil cake ($11) with macerated blueberries, Earl Gray gelato and mascarpone is lighter and fluffier than any I’ve tasted, and the blackberry stracciatella gelato ($7) crunch with crackling threads of dark chocolate.
As for those dishes I mentioned at the beginning that brought joy and cheers? It all comes down to fishing. The burrata ($18) is what deserved applause and is probably the best thing I’ve eaten all year. Served with a lightly herbaceous olive oil, corn, cucumbers, sliced red onions and succulent local fruits, it’s pure creamy heaven, especially when scooped up with homemade focaccia ($6) which is chewy, fatty and charred – everything a superlative appetizer could be.
The dish that got the laughs was the corn cake ($11), served with half a roasted peach and stratospheric lemon verbena ice cream. Chef Wilcox knows stone fruits very well and who knows how long they will stay on the menu. It’s the best thing about seasonal food, and maybe why I felt the need to applaud. Like a performance, it’s here and then gone, and it forces you to feel and remember. I can’t wait to make Tartuca a regular place; I’m sure there will be many more memorable performances to come.
TO EAT: Tartuca, 3951 N Mississippi Ave., 503-477-8008, tartucapdx.com. 4pm-10pm Tuesday-Thursday, 11.30am-10pm Friday-Saturday, 11.30am-9pm Sunday.