Opening the door into DeNicola’s Italian Restaurant is like opening the door into your grandmother’s kitchen.
You are welcomed with a smile, invited to sit down, surrounded by loud conversation and laughter, and there are all those wonderful Italian aromas – baking eggplant in sauce and cheese, simmering pasta and gnocchi, seasoned meatballs and sausage, baking bread – you can almost taste the air.
DeNicola’s is a Portland landmark.  Opened in 1978 by Giovanni and Rosa DeNicola, it quickly became a favorite in the community.  It is still a destination for families, Italian clubs and long-time friends, who come to savor the old DeNicola family recipes and talk the night away snuggled into a booth or crowded around one of the tables.  There is a true family feeling at DeNicola’s that is hard to find in most restaurants today.
The DeNicola’s didn’t start out in the restaurant business.  Giovanni and Rosa both immigrated from Pietragalla, in the province of Potenza, around 1953 but didn’t meet until they were in the States.  After they married, the family followed Giovanni’s construction career as he moved from one project site to another.  They lived in New York, Toronto, Flagstaff, and even in little Wasco, Oregon – where he worked on the John Day Dam on the Columbia River – before they finally settled in Portland.
While Giovanni worked in construction, Rosa went to work for the Lido and Monte Carlo restaurants.  She was a natural in the kitchen and a true Italian chef – she never measured anything.  Even without any formal training, her dishes were fabulous, delicious and consistent.  She also had a strong work ethic, putting in hour after hour.  Giovanni often joined her in the kitchen at the restaurants after his normal work shift was done, helping with prep work.
“My dad always had two jobs,” says Donna DeNicola Barrett.  “He and my mom were work horses.”
Deciding to open a restaurant of their own, the DeNicola’s partnered with two other couples and opened Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant in Beaverton.  The business was a huge success with lines out the door every evening.  Rosa and Giovanni slept in the kitchen every night while they ran the restaurant; Giovanni would make the trip to Longview every morning to work his regular shift before returning to the restaurant to wash dishes all night.
Donna remembers how hard the whole family worked; she and her sister went to school during the day and then worked in the restaurant in the evenings.  Donna did the payroll for her parents when she was in high school.  “It just got so busy so fast.  We didn’t even have a busboy!  None of us had ever gone out to dinner. We weren’t business people.  But what we had was the food and the location.”
Differences between the partners led the DeNicola’s to leave Giovanni’s and look for space to open another restaurant.  This time they settled on a building in southeast Portland on Powell Boulevard.  DeNicola’s opened in May of 1978 and Rosa and Giovanni slept in the kitchen again for another two years while the business took off.  Eventually, the DeNicola’s owned five different restaurant locations.  Today only the original location remains.
Rosa and Giovanni believed in serving high quality food in the southern Italian tradition.  Rosa would spend hours perfecting a dish before it made it to the menu.  Pasta was always al dente, sauces and soups were fresh every day.  Cheese was fresh grated and the pizza dough was rolled by hand.
Today Donna’s sons, Patrick and Johnny help run the restaurant.  Johnny has inherited his grandmother’s cooking skill and attention to detail.  The pasta is still perfectly al dente; soups and sauces are fresh and homemade.  The menu includes gluten-free and vegetarian options.
Donna’s brother Nick has been making the restaurant’s trademark pizzas for several years.
“You have to love this business,” Donna says. “Every day I come to work, I like that as much as every day that I have off. There is so much more to learn all the time.”
When asked what her favorite item is on the menu, Donna takes a very long pause.  “The Eggplant Parm.  My mom perfected it.  We still make it using her recipe and in the same way.”
Rosa and Giovanni passed away in 2003 but they are still a large presence in the restaurant.  Photos and portraits hang on the restaurant walls; friends and customers still share stories of Rosa and Giovanni.  Family is a dominate theme at DeNicola’s.
“My dad had a way of saying things.  He really liked people and was very witty,” Donna remembers.  “My mom was very hard working; she did everything, even after she retired.  She had a kitchen in her garage and every day the garage door would go up, the music would go on and she would cook all day.”

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