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Fearless Critic restaurant review
Italian, Pizza
Casual restaurant

Mon–Thu 11:00am–9:00pm
Fri–Sat 11:00am–10:00pm
Sun noon–9:00pm

Features Good wines, outdoor dining
Bar Beer, wine, liquor
Credit cards Visa, MC, AmEx
Reservations Accepted


Northwest Portland
33 NW 23rd Pl.
Portland, OR
(503) 467-4067
Sal’s Famous Italian
A mid-century menu that’s been making strides—the rest needs to catch up

Sal’s Famous Italian was, for a long time, a mostly nostalgic venture. The menu was full of hearty dishes of comfort foods you may have had as a kid—that is, Southern-Italian-influenced American classics, like Caesar (actually, Mexican-influenced, but a longtime adoption not worth making a fuss over), chicken cacciatore, and fettucine alfredo. These are still here, but they’re in the minority—for now, anyway.

From the outside, this little red neighborhood joint suggests checkered tablecloths, Chianti-bottles-in-wicker-basket candles, and a goateed tenor belting out “That’s Amore” in the corner. But the inside is surprisingly airy, bordering on cold. There are pictures on the walls, smartly arranged and lit by ambient pendants; there’s packed seating and cheap, catalogue-y furniture. Look past the serviceable “table wine” in carafes to a wine list with some surprising producers at terrifically low markups. Just because you’re not in the market for a serious Italian meal doesn’t mean you can’t have an affordable serious Italian bottle, which this menu amply offers (along with some more avoidable domestics).

Gone are many mid-century Americana dishes like salmon over bow-tie pasta, and the like. Sal’s has been making some admirable strides towards authenticity. A simple butternut-squash ravioli dish with sage and brown butter is fine, if a little on the sweet side; amatriciana is done properly with bucatini, so that the slightly spicy sauce, slow simmered with salty pancetta, garlic, and onions, leaks into each narrow tube.

Since Sal’s is owned by the folks behind Pizzicato, it makes sense that pizza is offered here, a vaguely Italian-style pie with a thin crust. Although a large selection of toppings is available, you would do well to exercise restraint. The simpler versions are best, with well-performing tomato sauce and mozzarella.

Portions have shrunk since the retro days, which is a lot closer to a true Italian meal, but still here are strong flavors—and clunky execution. Dishes have come cool in places, and so has service; salumi plates taste grocery-store-bought. With one location already closed and so many better pizzerias opening up, more authentically Italian restaurants everywhere, and even a surprisingly decent, locally owned chain of pasta restaurants, Sal’s might be stuck in that mid-century dilemma. It can either go fully retro-chic or tighten it up a whole lot. At this rate, checkered tablecloths and corny crooners might actually work in its favor.

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