SOCCER WITH A SIDE OF LINGUINE
Gino Schettini and Kevin Gorretta opened a restaurant first and foremost to encourage socializing and sportsmanship. “It was meant to be a place where friends could gather and enjoy themselves while watching soccer games,” says Roberto Herrera, manager of Piazza Italia (1129 NW Johnson St, 503-478-0619, piazzaportland.com). “These kinds of places are common in Italy, but they didn’t really exist in Portland.”
This fact explains the enormous collection of soccer memorabilia on the restaurant’s walls—and even the ceiling. Schettini, born in Rome, and Gorretta, from Portland but with strong family ties to Italy’s Piemonte region, threw open the doors to their colorful neighborhood trattoria in 2000. It quickly became a favorite destination of Nike and Adidas employees along with residents of the then (and still) fast-growing blocks around Johnson and 12th. Although cancer cut short Schettini’s life in 2007, he’d be delighted to see that his pride and joy lives on happily today, still run by Gorretta along with Gino’s daughter, Amy Schettini.
Piazza Italia actually started as a deli, but everybody loved the food, which is based on recipes from Gino’s family, so they expanded it into a full-service restaurant. “His sister-in-law traveled from Italy and trained all the cooks,” says Herrera, an artist as well as an ardent soccer fan who hails originally from Argentina. He mounted the soccer jerseys on the ceiling to help make the dining room feel larger. Many are signed by famous soccer stars. If you’re lucky, you may even see players from visiting international teams as well as members of the Portland Timbers and Thorns during your meal.
Although the festive atmosphere accounts in part for its success, Piazza Italia thrives in a city that’s almost addicted to new restaurant openings because it promises authentic, robust Italian food in big portions, and at accessible prices. “It’s honest comfort food,” says Herrera, almost matter-of-factly. “We have regulars who’ve been coming here for 20 years, once or twice a month, ordering the same dish every time.”
“It was meant to be a place where friends could gather and enjoy themselves
while watching soccer games.”
Piazza Italia does not serve pizza (although you will find outstanding bruschetta, one with a classic tomato-based topping, and the other with sautéed mushrooms, pancetta, garlic, and white wine). Herrera notes that people call all the time wanting pizza, apparently having misread the restaurant’s name.
The specialty here is, without a doubt, pasta. Regulars rave about the spaghetti mare e monti, with a creamy sauce of pesto and mushrooms and a generous helping of sautéed shrimp, as well as the lasagna—which happens to be gluten-free and is filled with beef, veal, and béchamel. Gnocchi, though not on the official menu, is usually available on request, and it’s absolutely sublime with the slow-cooked wild boar sauce. Wine lovers, rest assured, you’ll find a superb list that spans Italy, from northern (Alto Adige) pinot bianco to southern (Sicilian) nero d’avola.
If you find yourself still hungry after making your way through appetizers and a main dish—many guests share one dessert portion—Herrera swears by the classic tiramisu, pointing out that its most loyal fans sometimes stop by and take an order or two home with them. The restaurant’s deli—stocked with imported salumi, cheeses, and olives—is open during lunch and dinner hours.
Piazza Italia opened a smaller satellite space, Bar Rione—partnering with renowned cocktail mixologist Lucy Brennan—last November. “It’s a place where our customers can relax while they wait for a table in the restaurant,” says Herrera. “But Lucy’s cocktails are amazing, and it’s definitely become a destination in its own right.”
– Andrew Collins // Photos by Aubrie LeGault