In Alberta street in Portland, a great taste traveler a few years ago opened an Italian restaurant specializing in southern cuisine. His name is Enzo and his story is long, varied and flavorful as his signature dish: Italian meat sauce “Ragù alla Barese”.
Alberta Street is an art district, far from the touristy part of Portland: live music, galleries, murals and small kitchens that create great dishes; one of them belongs to Enzo, chef and owner of “Enzo’s caffè Italiano”, Who with his wife Linh runs a excellent safeguard of Italian cuisine. I find Enzo’s a little ‘by chance. I’m tired, the day is ending and my camera is tightly closed in the holster. “Are you Italian?” asks Sara, the girl serving tables in the dheor in front of the restaurant. “Yes we are” I reply asking “And the cook ?” “Ehh, of course! he comes from Béri (city of Bari, Ed.)“ laughs while imitating the Apulian dialect “as soon as he finishes cooking the <<brasciòla >> (pork chop in Apulian dialect, Ed.) I’ll call him over”. While Sara is chatting with my wife , i have a peek at the menu … a few dishes – and this is good -a lot of tradition and a touch of true Italian-American cuisine (Far from fettuccine alfredo, thankfully!) That makes me think of someone who has lived here for a long time. Enzo introduces himself, energetic and stressed from working in the kitchen; he tells me to pass by the next day to see how he works and to taste his famous meat sauce “Ragù alla Barese”. I’m already looking forward to a good story and a great dish.
The next day, as promised, Enzo opened the doors of his kitchen. “Where do you want me to start?” he asks “Well, from the beginning …” “Ehh, I have a lot to tell!“ he answered, laughing. As I thought, his history began long ago “ at age 17 I left my village Toritto for France. I wanted to learn another language so I studied French – can you tell? I still have the french r – I supported myself working as an interpreter for Italian businessmen. I would accompany them around and be their tour guide. After 1 year and a half I got tired and I went to Stuttgart, I wanted to learn German too. In Germany I met my first wife. She was from Portland and wanted to return to America, so we came here in ’76. I did not want to come, but I started to study and I learned English too “ I listen to him speak and I begin to understand: in fact Enzo spoken language is a babel of accents, dominated by the characteristic inflection of Bari. “Cooking was just a passion back then, for 20 years I imported ceramics from Italy. Then I started to make them myself. It was in my blood, my relatives are all a bit ‘sculptors. My uncle took me in the construction yard while working on the restoration of the church of San Nicola in Bari. I was 7 years old, but at the time it was a normal thing for a child to work!” As we speak, Enzo cooks the dishes for the first customers: bruschetta and clams on the grill, the bread in the oven, which he prepares every day, and fresh pasta to be dried “Now I find almost everything I need, but when I arrived even finding a pasta that wouldn’t overcook was a problem“.
As soon as the dishes are ready, Linh serves them at the tables “She is my second wife” he tells me “She was my interpreter in Vietnam” “Have you also been to Vietnam?“ I ask him” Yes, but I’ll tell you about that later, before I was in Albania, it was 1998, in Vlore. And then I went back to Italy and I bought some land with my brother: I still have it, we grow almonds “ now I can see it, the homesickness in the eyes of Enzo. “In 2004 I ended up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. At first I imported pottery, and then I ended up working for Segafredo (a famous italian coffee brand, Ed.) : I took care of the construction of franchise stores. In the meantime, I opened a restaurant in Uhè, the New York Cafe. As I said before, there I met Linh and then Emma was born. But Vietnam was too hot and humid, so we decided to come back to Portland. “ Enzo pauses for a moment then adds, raising his hands “Damn, if only i had gone back to Italy!”
Enzo is a man on the run, restless wherever he went, even now he does not feel comfortable “ In 2005 I opened this place in Portland. Business is good, but next year I will leave everything to my nephew“ he swears “He is now in Puglia, but he studied in Portland. He doesn’t see a future in Italy, he’s good and committed but can not find work. So the idea was born to leave him the restaurant: he knows the job, I can trust him. “What about you?” I ask. “I’m going back home amongst my almond trees, my family and my friends at the bar of my village!”
I sit outside and finally taste the famous meat sauce “Ragù alla Barese”. The sauce is well conceived, tasty, rich with meat and correctly cooked pasta. An ancient taste from the other side of the world. While I eat I imagine Enzo returning home, amongst the almond trees and the bar of Toritto – all around him his Puglia – and thinks longingly of his tireless and restless way of living.