Eugene and its surrounding areas may be more than 5,000 miles from Italy, yet they boast several eateries that serve some of the finest Italian classics in the Pacific Northwest. Some have been around for decades, while others are relatively new to the Italian food scene. Mazzi’s opened for business more than 50 years ago, for example, while Ambrosia Restaurant and Bar started in 1987, followed later by the Excelsior Inn and Ristorante Italiano and Beppe and Gianni’s Trattoria. Fairly new to the Italian landscape are Placido’s Pasta Shop, Pastini, and Bari Trattoria, all in Eugene, 1285 Restobar in Florence, and Cioppino House in Pleasant Hill. And if you want pizza, there’s definitely options for that, including the new Bartolotti’s Pizza Bistro in the University of Oregon’s EMU.
Although these restaurants offer a wide array of Italian dishes from all different regions of Italy (each of Italy’s 20 regions has its own culinary uniqueness), they each share a few characteristics that unite them. These include simplicity, the use of fresh and seasonal ingredients, and basic cooking techniques that allow each dish to speak for itself.
Frank Ernandes was only 22 years old when he opened Mazzi’s back in 1970. “I had just graduated from UO and I had spent time in Italy, and I’d always had this idea of running a restaurant,” he says. “When I started out, we had a pretty basic menu of spaghetti, ravioli, and lasagna . . . we used my Sicilian family’s recipes.”
As time passed, Ernandes added new dishes, but always with a traditional style. “We’re in Oregon, so we try to use things that come from this region,” he says “We do a lot of salmon — we treat a Northwest ingredient in the style that we think it would be made in Italy, so we’ve continued to evolve and try to change our menu seasonally.”
Ernandes says he has a little farm where he grows fruits, tomatoes, and herbs that are utilized in his Italian cuisine. “A good tomato sauce is the basis for a lot of our dishes,” he says, noting that lasagna and calzone are two of his most requested items at Mazzi’s.
Armen Kevrekian is the longtime proprietor of Ambrosia Restaurant and Bar. He explains that Ambrosia doesn’t focus on any specific section of Italy, but rather embraces all of it. “Our philosophy is regional Italian cuisine, which means we take dishes from all regions of Italy and put them on the menu,” he says.
Customer favorites include Fettuccine Davide (created by Ambrosia’s first chef, David Proctor), which features chicken, basil, and garlic in a sun-dried tomato cream sauce; the classic spaghetti alla Bolognese, with a meat-based tomato sauce seasoned with basil and oregano; and freshly made pizza baked in a wood-fired oven.
As a restaurateur, Kevrekian says one of his greatest enjoyments is conducting what he calls winemaker dinners — regular events that allow guests to learn about pairing Italian cuisine with sophisticated local wines, as well as those from all corners of the globe. “This is a fun and educational thing,” he says. “Food in Italy will always be what it is, and we, in America, have progressed and we’ve learned how to appreciate matching good Italian food with good wine.”
Also known for hosting monthly wine dinners is the Excelsior Inn and Ristorante Italiano. Owner Maurizio Paparo, who was born in Naples and raised in Florence, Italy, says his farm-to-table eatery is devoted to serving authentic Italian eats made with the best possible ingredients. “Except for some specialty items from Italy, we buy local, we buy fresh, and we like to support our farmers,” he explains. “And every single pasta that we serve, we make right here.”
Paparo says Excelsior’s top three pasta dishes are artichoke ravioli, crab pasta, and gnocchi, and for serious meat lovers, there are plenty of steak dishes available. “In Tuscany, we do enjoy our different kinds of meat — grilled at an extremely high temperature for a great sear,” he adds.
“We like to stay with the traditions,” he says. “We have our own baker, we have a smoker in the house . . . Excelsior is not a trendy restaurant, it’s a traditional restaurant for food, ambiance, and quality.
High quality ingredients are also of the utmost importance to John “Gianni” Barofsky, who, along with business partner Beppe Macchi, owns Beppe and Gianni’s Trattoria located near the University of Oregon campus. “We’re always focused on using the freshest ingredients possible,” Barofsky says. “All of our pasta is homemade, and we make it in-house every day.”
Barofsky, who primarily works the back of the house while Macchi works the front, says the trattoria has evolved in the past 23 years, as have many of its customers. “People today are more aware of good Italian food, and not just spaghetti and meatballs,” he says. Their menu features lots of dishes with fish and meat that are purchased locally, including angel hair pasta with sea scallops and shrimp sauteed in a light garlic sauce, and braised short ribs in a wild mushroom wine reduction.
Barofsky doesn’t try to pin down the restaurant’s inspiration to a particular region. “Our cuisine is Italian, of course, but Beppe’s from Sicily so it gets more complicated than that,” he explains. “Take spaghetti carbonara. This is pervasive throughout Italy, but people always debate whether it should include cream or no cream. People are adamant — either yes or no. But I’ve concluded that whatever way your mother made it, that’s the way you should make it.”
For Joe Placido, pasta maker and owner of Placido’s Pasta Shop at 120 Shelton McMurphey Boulevard, good Italian food is all about the pasta. “It’s the star of the show,” he says. “It’s very simple, as it has only three ingredients — organic semolina, organic eggs, and water.” He notes that the semolina gives the pasta more of a bite than you would get from other types of flour.
Placido says his menu reflects many types of Italian cuisine. One of his most popular entrees is ravioli filled with in-house smoked meats. “One has smoked chicken and the other has smoked salmon,” he says. Additional menu favorites are chicken Marsala, prepared with sauteed cremini mushrooms and a sweet/savory Marsala, and vodka rigatoni, featuring sweet Italian sausage in a tomato cream sauce.
“We like to say our food is Sicilian-based,” he says, adding that his pasta shop is also inspired by the rest of Southern Italy. “We have lighter dishes with lighter sauces, but we also have heavier dishes with cream sauces.”
Susan Bashel, who owns Pastini with her husband, Craig, and their business partner Kara Hale, says quality is always at the top of the list when it comes to her restaurants’ menus. She argues that good Italian cuisine is one of life’s greatest pleasures, especially when served with a fine glass of wine. Presently, there are eight Pastini restaurants in the state; the first one opened in Portland in 2001, and Eugene was the latest to open in 2017.
Pastini’s menu, Bashel says, is devoted to all kinds of pasta, most of which is purchased from Classic Foods in Portland, a specialty company that creates fresh handmade pasta in all shapes and sizes. “We serve about 25 different pasta dishes on the menu, some from Southern Italy, some Roman, and some from Northern Italy,” she says. “We’re all over the map, but pasta is always our focus.”
Bashel explains that although Pastini has a fairly set menu, it does serve seasonal specials. Currently, that special is Fusilli alla Roma, which features roasted chicken, local organic mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and roasted garlic, all in a parmesan cream sauce. She describes it as “hearty, yet elegant, and perfect for winter.”
Still, “our most popular dish has to be fettuccine Alfredo with chicken,” Bashel says. “For a lot of people, that’s the pasta dish they default to; they don’t even look at the menu.”
Kurt Hargens, proprietor of 1285 Restobar, an Italian and seafood restaurant in Florence, says Italian dining establishments will always be in style. “They’ve stood the test of time,” he declares. “I think that people seek out Italian food because they love it.”
Hargens, who opened his bistro seven years ago, describes his menu items as “the San Francisco side of Italian.” “We’re not really rich and creamy,” he says. “We use a lot of olive oil, and we do lots of pesto. It’s more of a Mediterranean style.”
Regarding his more popular dishes, Hargens says pizza is at the top of the list, followed by halibut dredged in parmesan and grilled to order. “The parmesan halibut is just a really nice dish and people really like it,” he says. Other common choices include seafood pasta and crab-encrusted wild salmon. “There’s something for everyone here, and it’s a good fit for families,” he says.
Bari Trattoria is located in the Whiteaker neighborhood in an old converted home that previously housed Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen and BBQ. Owned by brothers Cody and Sean Verkler, the trattoria is named after the capital of Southern Italy’s Puglia region, which is where their grandmother came from.
Cody classifies his menu as Italian-American with an emphasis on his grandmother’s region, which features the bold flavors of tomato, olive oil, and herbs and spices. “We have a lot of specialty dishes, such as pork saltimbocca, which is pan-roasted pork loin stuffed with sage gremolata,” he says. Bari’s menu also offers various beef, lamb, and fish entrees.
“We sell a lot of meat dishes, but we also offer many meatless options,” says Cody. “We use lots of vegetables in our cooking, and we want to cater to our vegetarian customers.”
Cody says he and his brother have long been inspired by their Italian grandmother’s cooking. “Our grandmother valued making things from scratch,” he explains. “Italian food is supposed to be very simple, with a few ingredients and love.”
Bonnie Ferrara, who, along with her chef husband, Jack, has owned Cioppino House in Pleasant Hill’s Pisgah Public Market since 2015, says there is nothing better than running a homestyle Italian restaurant that offers delicious food in a cozy ambiance.
“We sell lots of cioppino, which is like an Italian seafood stew,” she explains, noting that the stew is a medley of fish and seafood simmered in an herbed sauce made from scratch. “You can always change the seafood. We use fresh halibut. We can do salmon year-round. It depends on what the catch of the day is.”
Other customer preferences include traditional and vegetarian lasagna, each prepared with three different types of cheese (ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella) and homemade sauce, Mediterranean seafood pasta, lamb chops, beef tenderloin, and rib eye steaks.
“What makes our place so special is that it has a homey, intimate feel about it,” Ferrara says. “It’s become sort of like a date night place, or a destination place. We’re kind of hidden and we’re small. We only have eight tables, but people seem to be really comfortable here.”
The newest addition to the Italian food scene is Bartolottis Pizza Bistro. Yes, they serve New York-style pizza, but owner Steve Shinn says he also wants “to be the guy serving pasta and red sauce with Italian sausages and meatballs,” like his mother, Eda, used to serve. Shinn opened his food truck in 2016, and quickly expanded to four locations: Springfield’s Main Street, Friendly Street in Eugene, the new EMU location, and Main Street in Cottage Grove. He wants to serve the food working class Italian Americans recognize — the foods they ate on a Wednesday evening after their parents worked all day, he says. The new bistro will serve eggplant parmesan, for instance, and even the classic Italian dessert cannoli.
So, whether you’re in the mood for freshly made pasta served with a spicy marinara, or a crusty pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, Eugene has a barrage of Italian restaurants to choose from. Buon Appetito!
Ambrosia Restaurant and Bar
174 E Broadway
400 Blair Blvd.
Beppe and Gianni’s Trattoria
1646 E 19th Ave.
35843 Highway 58, Pleasant Hill
[Editor’s Note – About a month after this article published, we received news that Excelsior Inn and Ristorante Italiano would be closing on February 28, 2022, after a 50-year history.]
Excelsior Inn and Ristorante Italiano
754 E 13th Ave.
[Editor’s Note – we received a note that we were remiss to not include Florence’s La Pomodori in our list of Lane County Italian restaurants so we have included their contact info here.]
1415 7th St., Florence
3377 E Amazon Dr.
325 Oakway Rd.
Placido’s Pasta Shop
120 Shelton McMurphey Blvd., Suite 110
1285 Bay St., Florence