The table to my left is arguing with their server about a mistake on their bill. Every time she walks away, they try to enlist neighboring tables into their misery, but I work hard not to make eye contact. And then, as if cued off-stage by someone wearing a walkie-talkie headset, a different server cuts the tension by clattering dozens of pieces of silverware to the floor on the other side of our two-top. Pulling the corners of her mouth down with her fingers, addressing us as if we were a room full of pre-kindergarteners, she mugs: “Oops! Long night. Frowny facey!” This is Saturday night at The Corner Room Italian Kitchen & Bar in Portland, and it’s not even the weirdest part of the evening.

That came about an hour before, when we arrived, checked in at the reception stand and then came back for a table a little later, as instructed. Instead of being seated, we were asked to wait on the bench by the front door. “I know we told you 20, but it’s been a really heavy service, and everybody is really tired. So we’re just going to give everyone a chance to rest. You know, catch their breath before we seat you? Maybe 10 to 15 more minutes,” our host said. So we sat by the boot-scuffed front door and watched the big-screen television mounted over the bar for the next 20 minutes. When our host eventually returned with menus in hand, she asked, “Still want to eat?”

Considerably less than before, but we did.

Nearly seven years ago, our reviewer ate at owner and executive chef Harding Lee Smith’s (The Grill Room, The Front Room, and Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room) American-inflected Italian restaurant, awarding it four stars in a mixed review that lauded the pasta all’Amatriciana’s “simple greatness,” while warning that some dishes “can be simply too rich.” As I took my menu, I was eager to see what had changed.

With more than two dozen appetizers and salads (not counting 20 salumi and cheeses), several pizzas and main dishes and another dozen pastas, the restaurant’s menu is astonishingly lengthy. According to chef de cuisine Greg Wilson, this is because “Harding always likes a lot of options. He wants people to find something they like to eat when they come in.”

Several of the menu’s more appealing-sounding items are made on site from scratch, like a dark chocolate hazelnut torte ($9) an indulgent Nutella-chocolate treat, plated playfully to resemble an ice cream cone; or a blueberry compote with a warm lemon shortcake biscuit ($9) that the kitchen bakes to order and tops with gelato that is made with a crushing excess of vanilla flavoring.

The kitchen also makes three of its salumi ($7 each) options in-house: bresaola, pork lonza and duck prosciutto. These cured meats are salted for a few days and hung in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerators, where they age for a minimum of six weeks. The lean, translucent pink lonza (also known as lomo) was excellent: sweet and a little nutty – the best of the three house-made salumi by a mile. The bresaola, sliced into rough curls with fringed ends, was far too dry, while the duck prosciutto came in stiff, jagged splinters and tasted more of old olive oil than cured meat.

Some pastas (all except linguine, penne, bucatini and the spaghetti used for side dishes) are also made in-house, including an exceptionally balanced and well-seasoned garganelli ($18 small, $24 large), served with goat cheese and a fresh, super-seasonal medley of corn, tomatoes, basil, summer squash and capers. Tremendously good and exactly the kind of vegetarian main dish that even an omnivore could love.

The bucatini with seafood ($25/$29), on the other hand, was dire. Inspired by a classic Mediterranean pairing of spicy sausage with shrimp, the pasta got a little rich, raisiny Spanish flavor from sherry. But with greasy semicircles of chorizo as tough as a chew toy and not a single piece of lobster (as listed on the menu) anywhere in the bowl, it was an oily, off-kilter mess of a dish.

The Cast Iron Chicken ($23), named after the pan used to first sear and then finish the bird in the oven, was another let-down. While the chicken was properly cooked and had a nice crisp skin (in places), the polenta, pan sauce and peperonata were undersalted and tasted powerfully of burned garlic. Bland and burnt are never a good combination, especially in a rustic, amply portioned main dish that our server described as “a big plate of food that you’ll want to eat all of.” I did not.

The similarly sizable salads had problems of their own. The bitter greens ($10) were a lively mix of radicchio, endive and arugula – a smart combination of aggressive and gentle bitterness. I assumed the roasted grapes would cut some of the harsher flavors with caramelized sweetness. But what I found on the plate were cold, whole red grapes each with a single, tiny blackened dot, as if the kitchen defined “roasting” as bringing the fruit in contact with a pinpoint of flame for no more than a microsecond.

The Corner Room’s chopped salad ($12), a “throwback to a classic Italian-American salad,” as Wilson described it, was a kitchen sink affair. The restaurant stretches (but does not make its own) fresh cheese curds, turning them into mozzarella that it cubes generously into the greens along with salami, chickpeas and tomatoes, and then tops with a too-herby oregano vinaigrette.

Both salads were much less interesting than their descriptions promised, and neither was nearly as good as the simplest on the menu: the Caesar ($10). With long, intact romaine leaves and a sparklingly acidic, lemony dressing to offset the flavor of rich white anchovies, this was a faithful and undeniably appealing version of an old classic.

The Corner Room's salumi plate

The Corner Room’s salumi plate

On both visits, we took advantage of The Corner Room’s decent selection of wines by the carafe, first opting for a plummy, soft Puglian Terremare Feudi di Guagnano ($9/glass, $22/carafe) that stood up well to the baked crespelle ($12), an underwhelming rolled Italian crepe filled with creamy ricotta and beef that was dried out on the ends. With our second meal, we opted for a spicy, oaky Dolomite “Cliffhanger” ($9/$21) to match up with a gorgeous prosciutto and arugula pizza ($18), baked in the restaurant’s stone deck pizza oven. I like my crust heavily blistered, but even a little underbaked, this pizza was still a salty, simply dressed delight.

I imagine it’s possible to create a road map to help diners navigate The Corner Room’s extensive menu and weather its inexplicably off-putting service stumbles – problems that made us feel as stressed out as our servers on a Saturday, then practically disappeared when we returned on a Tuesday. But I don’t need to. Squint your eyes just a little, and you’ll see the outlines of a fantastic Italian-American joint that serves great simple food: pizzas, seasonal pasta and a first-rate Caesar. Just ignore half (two-thirds, really) of the unnecessarily complicated menu and pray that you’re not in the dining room on a busy night.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AndrewRossME

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