Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
"She would just whack up a chicken and then let it go for hours on the stove," Grassa owner and chef Rick Gencarelli says of his mother's chicken cacciatore, a regular staple in his childhood home in Connecticut. Grassa's Radiatore with Tomato-Braised Chicken ($9) is a play on this Italian dish, with a twist: his version of the home-cooked classic comes with slices of crispy chicken skin sprinkled throughout.
Grassa, which opened early last week in its high-ceilinged space in downtown Portland, has a menu filled with dishes in a similar vein. Each is close to a traditional pasta combination, enhanced with an extra something. The pancetta-studded Carbonara ($10) is decorated with a sunny side-up duck egg on top, the puttanesca-like Strozzapreti with White Anchovies ($11) is tossed with house-smoked olives. Every pasta is made in-house with The Extruder, aka the Ferrari of pasta machines, which is displayed prominently on the chef's counter.
Upon entering, place your order and pay at the counter, then grab a drink (choices include Campari and soda for $8, an Italian Margarita spiked with Limoncello for $8, and local Oregon wines with Italian-style varietals on tap for $7-12) and head around the corner to communal bar-top seating. The kitchen is open, with hanging retractable power cords, and racks of homemade pastas of all shapes towering nearby. "I wanted people to feel like they were in a workshop, where they can get chef-driven pasta that's accessible. The elimination of servers allows us to spend that cost on quality ingredients," said Gencarelli. The casual atmosphere extends to the prices, too—no dish costs above $12.
While Gencarelli is no stranger to excess (one outpost of his meat-centric sandwich shop, Lardo, is right next door), the menu here puts Portland's fresh produce to work in dishes like Bucatini With Hazelnut Pesto, sourced from the nearby Portland Farmers Market. Grassa also sells fresh pastas and sauces made in-house to-go for all of your home-cooking needs.