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Portland has no shortage of good international restaurants - whatever you are hungry for you will likely find it somewhere. Northeast Alberta Street has one of the densest collections of international cuisines anywhere in the city. Traveling west on Alberta from NE 32nd, you will encounter Thai, Lebanese, Cuban, Indian, French, Mexican, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, even a Waffle Window. At Enzo’s Caffè Italiano, the doors open into the region of Puglia and you will find a flavor unmatched in Portland.
Enzo’s is small and cozy, the walls decorated with family photos and cascades of tiny blue lights hang from the ceiling year round. White tablecloths cover the tables, shelves of wine bottles line the walls, and a tiled espresso bar hugs the corner across from the kitchen. This is a restaurant straight out of southern Italy.
Chef Enzo Lanzadoro and his wife, Linh opened Enzo’s in 2010. It is a family affair; nephew Michele manages the floor and wait staff, sister Carmela assists in the kitchen with specialties like stuffed calamari, and son Nicholas helps Enzo navigate the business side of the restaurant.
Using old family recipes, Linh prepares all the desserts, from sweet espresso Tiramisù to her special panna cotta layered in wine glasses with chocolate and strawberries. Youngest daughter Emma often sits at the espresso counter working on homework.
The fourth of seven children, Enzo was born and raised in Toritto, located about 15 miles inland from the Adriatic Sea. Toritto was a small town when he was a boy and everyone was like one big family. He remembers the festa called La Fanova, a food competition between the different streets.
“We used to build bonfires in the middle of the street with big logs; some were three, four, five meters tall. The streets were just gravel at the time. They would put out huge kettles with potatoes and i cunnid, which is many different kinds of beans. Everyone from the street would bring something to contribute.”
The beans would cook for hours until finally late at night, the townsfolk would bring their bowls to dish up ladles of beans and meat, drizzled with olive oil. “We would just sit around the bonfires. It was a huge competition who would have the best beans.”
Only six when his father died in a construction accident, young Enzo became his mother’s shadow in the kitchen, developing his love of cooking and learning early the art of making good bread.
“The dough speaks to you,” Enzo smiles as he thinks back. “You have to know how to work it and when it is ready. I learned how to listen to the dough.”
In those days, there was no store to buy bread. Making bread for eight people every week meant preparing ten loaves weighing almost 3 kilos each. Every family’s bread was baked in the central oven in Toritto; the baker would mark the loaves with the family name before putting them into the oven. He knew the exact moment that the dough was ready to go in. Watching all of this made an impact on Enzo. “Food in my town was the best thing you could get.”
The menu at Enzo’s Caffè Italiano is full of regional specialties and family recipes, tempting dishes like Polpette Chitarra, Cartoccio di Mare, Sulla Riva, Orecchiette Altamurane, and Sugo Barese, a traditional red sauce made with chunks of goat, beef, and pork, and slowly cooked. “Sunday was sacred – you must have Sugo Barese,” he says. “It cooked all day because the meat was tough back then. Each family had its own secret. My mom used mostly goat and some beef, usually only a bone. In the winter, she would add pork.”
“Walking by the doorways of Toritto on Sunday you could smell all the sauces cooking and you could tell what the family had in its sauce. You would say, ‘Oh her Sugo is not that good!’ ” Enzo laughs as he thinks back.
Enzo misses Toritto. “It doesn’t change. I can still sit on the same rock that I sat on when I was nine years old.”
He also misses the way southern Italians talk to each other. “Being from Puglia, I miss the way we talk. Most people nowadays would think we are using rough language, offending people. But you say what you mean…and more!” Enzo pauses, “I miss the pure, relaxed way of talking. We are just honest with each other and it is funny.”
Growing up in Toritto infused Enzo with a love for the wildness of Puglia and of the Murgia, where there is so much diversity in the plant and animal life. Puglia is very unique, almost a country unto itself. “We have the cold from the north, the warm from Africa, air currents from Montenegro, so much fresh water of the Adriatic Sea,” he says. “Arugula grew wild on the foothills of the Murgia, wild herbs, broccoli rabe. Many vegetables originated there and are now cultivated.”
Unfortunately, the same cultivation that has increased availability of the wild vegetables has also changed their flavor. In the arid wild of Puglia, the plants learned to pull water from the air, which made their flavor more vibrant. Now irrigation has watered down their taste.
When Enzo first opened his restaurant, patrons expected the same dishes prepared in the same way as other Italian restaurants around Portland; but one taste and the difference became clear.
Southern Italian cuisine is decidedly distinct from mainstream Italian. There is another difference - the food is prepared fresh as it is ordered.
“The ravioli doesn’t come out of the freezer, the garlic isn’t chopped until you need it, the pasta is made when it is ordered,” says Enzo. “That is Puglia - everything at the moment. It is fresh, quick, flavorful.”
“It is a technique of understanding when you’re going to put the garlic inside, when you’re going to put in the onions, when you are going to add the mushrooms, whatever you are doing. You don’t just put everything together. Each one of them has to have their own flavor by the way you cook them.”
“In other words,” he continues, “Ingredients must be cooked in steps. When we cook shrimp – we eat a lot of those in Puglia – we cook the shrimp and then put them aside and add them back in when the rest of the dish is cooked. In this way, the shrimp taste like shrimp.”
Besides the set menu, Enzo’s also offers weekly specials and frequent dining events, featuring specific dishes paired with different wines. Most recently, the restaurant held a Polipo dinner, featuring octopus prepared in different ways, from antipasto to main course.
Enzo is well known for his handmade sausages and salami, and he still bakes lots of fresh bread every day. This author is particularly fond of the fresh Focaccia Barese.
In the past year, the restaurant has doubled in size, adding much needed event space. The new space has become a gathering place for live music, games, Italian conversation groups, Italian language lessons, and family celebrations. Thursday nights are movie nights, featuring films such as Mediterraneo, Cinema Paradiso, La Vita è Bella, Amarcord, Ciao Professore!, and other acclaimed Italian movies.
Enzo’s is also adding wine tastings twice a week. This is not the usual wine tasting of five or six different wines. Instead, instructor Rico Kaplan presents one grape variety at a time, highlighting regional differences. At the first two tastings, patrons sampled three different versions of Sangiovese, two from Puglia and one from Le Marche.
The added space will be like an Italian bar in southern Italy, where patrons spend together in conversation and laughter. This is Enzo’s dream. “You come in, you grab a bottle of wine or a glass of wine and a plate of antipasti, and you can enjoy your time in here.”
Support L'Italo-Americano Foundation through its fundraising efforts that allow us to promote and preserve the Italian culture and heritage in the US. Enter to win fantastic prizes Including a vacation in Florence. (20% will be donated to the “I Love Norcia” association to support the reconstruction of the town, dramatically hit by the recent earthquake).