Night Out At Taste Unique

I'm a huge fan of Italian food. Huge fan. Growing up my favorite food was always spaghetti, and then when I got to high school and college I found a fascination for fettucine alfredo. I love pizza. I love pasta.

In fact, I loved Italian food so much that when it came time to pick another language in college I chose Italian and then studied in Perugia (north of Rome) for a summer. Okay, not completely because of the food - I do have a quarter of my blood from Italian roots. My dad's mom's parents hailed from near Genoa, a city on the northwest coast known for great seafood and seafaring. My "pilgrimage to my homeland" (or, well, one of them, since as a white citizen of the United States I'm really a mutt) was a little about language, a little about travel, a little about food, and a little about finding my history.

It would take a novel to recount what I learned in Italy - maybe someday... - but when it came to food I found out one thing: I really didn't know what Italian food was at all.

I mean, sure, Italians do eat pizza, and they do eat pasta, but it's nothing like here. The also eat a ton of different meats, seafood, and vegetables, and apparently what passes for Italian food here in the States really is just 1% of the Italian diet. After a couple days of just pasta and pizza, I figured out you really can't live on the stuff (I won't lie though, during my time in Italy, I sure did try).

Before my trip to Italy I always wanted to go out for Italian food, but afterwards? I did at first, hoping to find some of the yummy things I ate there. But you know what? Italian food in Portland - at least the places I went to then or had liked before my trip - simply didn't measure up. I know, I know - like it's some kind of big shock the Olive Garden doesn't do things like a real Italian.

So for awhile I just didn't eat that much Italian food, unless it was spaghetti, lasagna, or something alla carbonara we made at home. (Pizza is a different story, which has so many variations and styles as I've recounted in a couple posts here.)

Then about six months ago we read on some foodie forums about this new Italian place on SE Division called Taste Unique. It's a hybrid restaurant/take-out place, specializing more in the takeout. Stefania is the chef - her husband Lawrence also works with her - and she makes all sorts of wonderful creations, including real fettucine, wonderful Tuscan onion soup, saffron risotto (filled with mozzarella, when she can find Italian saffron), fresh breads, and tiramisu that will make your eyes roll back in your head like...well, you know.

As it turned out, Stefania is actually from Perugia (Lawrence is American). She was excited when she found out I had been there, but it had been 10 years for me and even when I was there, I was studying or, um, hanging out - so I knew very few of the places she wanted to talk about.

Wifey and I have been into Taste Unique probably 15-20 times since our first foray, basically choosing what sounds good out of the fresh and frozen cases, but we had never actually eaten there. And we wanted to. We frequent this messageboard and veteran members there will occasionally have dinners, but we had never gone. Stefania had even offered up her place a few times for dinners, meals that had looked pretty good. We just had never gone, not being all that social and all.

However, a few weeks back Stefania posted on the board and offered up a pasta dinner...and the demand far outstripped supply for her tiny place, which can only hold 12 for a dinner. So she opened up a second date and I signed up Wifey and me. A five-course pasta meal with fresh sauces? Yes, please!

And it was quite the experience. She informed us when the meal began we would actually be having seven pasta courses, pictures of which you can see here halfway down the page courtesy of another diner. Her pictures are much better than the ones I would have taken with my cell phone camera.

The first two, the frittatas, were served cold on the same plate and we were told they are considered picnic foods because they don't need to be heated. Her bolognese sauce was fantastic (with her fresh fettucine), with a wonderful saltiness. My favorite, by far, was the carbonara. It featured guanciale from Olympic Provisions as well as pancetta, and the creaminess was by far the best I have ever eaten. Mine never turns out this good. The pesto trapanese was surprisingly sweet, which is something you don't expect from a pesto to be sure. A week later I'm still not sure how I feel about the broccoli dish - which also had anchovies, though you couldn't really pick them out in the flavor profile. I think I liked it.

The dessert was intriguing. Chocolate pasta? It shouldn't work, but it did. I'm not sure it'll make it high on my dessert list - definitely not past her tiramisu - but it was an interesting dish to try.

I'm positive no Italian would ever eat this way, but all of these small dishes were a great representation of pasta side dishes from all over the nation and a great way to try a ton of different flavors.

I will say, that was a crapload of pasta. Both of us rolled out of there with leftovers, and I didn't even really feel like eating breakfast the next day. The scale wasn't kind to me either. And I don't think I'd do a seven-course pasta meal again, but once was fun.

Taste Unique is absolutely a place to stop in and visit. It's an easy way to pick up dinner on the way home from work, and Stefania also teaches various classes (pizza making, pasta making) as well as she is starting to do theme dinners open to anyone who signs up. We definitely recommend it.

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