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Cibo tosses tasty pizza, but pasta misses mark

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Chefs throw a lot of house-made dough around Cibo, a new restaurant on Southeast Division Street, which specializes in stromboli, calzone and pizza, as well as a new kind of flatbread.In a space that is both dramatic and cozy, Cibo is turning out fancy pizzas, a handful of snacks and lots of starchy, satisfying food. It’s neighborhood Italian for a neighborhood that is also a dining destination — Southeast Division Street, the sweetheart of restaurateurs, especially chef-owners with an urge to branch out.

Marco Frattaroli is just the type. Cibo is his follow-up to Bastas, which has been humming along on Northwest 21st Avenue for 20 years.

Cibo’s menu is similar to Bastas, but definitely not the same. The pasta dishes are different, and there’s a much bigger focus on things that involve the excellent, house-made dough: stromboli, calzone, pizza.

Cibo also introduces a new branch of the flatbread family. Cecina is an irregular, unleavened round, made with chickpea flour and topped simply with pepper, cheese, sausage or a pungent, garlick-y pesto. The waiter describes it as a pancake, which is close enough. He could also have said paratha, arepas or crepes. The texture is a bit grainy, with a crisp edge and a tender, almost eggy interior.

Let your eye wander to the bottom of the menu for sides that also serve as appetizers. Arancini are balls of rice fried in breadcrumbs, traditional to southern Italy. Here, it’s an arancina, a rice ball the size of a baseball, crunchy and browned on the outside, saffron-yellow within. At its heart is a vegetable ragu and a nugget of stretchy mozzarella. More cheese would have been better.

The star of the starters is the octopus salad. Chunks of remarkably sweet and tender octopus are charred without being at all overcooked. They’re tossed with greens, onions, and crisp rounds of potato in a vinaigrette, with a little bit of salt and citrus. The texture is just perfect.

Unfortunately, that’s not true for the pasta.

Gnocchi were almost cloyingly structure-less, swaddled in a creamy sauce made of sheep’s milk cheese and lots of garlic. House-made speck was added for some porky, salty flavor, but it was rather tough. The chewy meat and soft dumplings clashed like vinyl and velvet.

There was also a small issue with the house-made noodles. They had the pliant quality and new-milled taste that fresh pasta should have, but some of the rough-cut squares stuck together as they were cooked, creating an occasional bite of cardboard. The slow-cooked meat ragu made up for it. It was rich, complex, and yet not too heavy and not over-herbed. The meat and tomatoes were allowed to speak for themselves.

Happy Kids Hour?

This is the new Italian-American. And that means, above all, a wood-burning pizza oven.

Firewood is stacked by the front door, and men toss pizza dough nearby. The crusts are very good, crackling and browned, floury and supple. They’re delicate, and can get a little soggy at the tip, especially with weightier toppings. Still, don’t avoid the pepperoni, which is made in-house. It’s spicy and crumbly, like Mexican chorizo, and nothing like the curled-up rounds of mainstream pizza parlors.

This is no hut. A huge bar covered in ornate tile fills the center of the room. The walls are striped with long rough boards, like a backyard fence, backlit in brilliant cat’s-eye yellow. It’s worth stopping by for a drink just to see it.

House cocktails are a showcase for bitter liqueurs, newly trendy and no longer the preserve of Italian grandfathers. The Cibo version of a Negroni is lighter, fruitier and more herbal than the original, with dry vermouth instead of sweet, and grapefruit bitters in place of Angostura. The Obituary is appropriately dark: bourbon, Punt e Mes, Fernet, and orange bitters. Like a cranky but witty acquaintance, it tends to grow on you.

All cocktails are a dollar cheaper during happy hour, and wine is an impressive $2 off, bringing the house red and white down to $4 a glass. A margherita pizza is just $5, and, as you can imagine, there’s quite a rush for them around 6 p.m.

Around the same time, the place is full of families with young children. At first, it seemed odd to me to see a little girl belly up to the bar. Nearby, a little boy was clutching the stem of a martini glass in one hand (he was spooning ice cream out of it with the other.)

Happy hour plus kids? The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.

Cibo, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday, 3539 S.E. Division St., 503-719-5377, cibopdx.com

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