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Bread & Brew: Roman Candle adds fireworks to Division

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Italian wedding soup - similar to minestrone - includes a big meatball and a side of pizza bianca at Roman Candle Baking Co. on Southeast Division Street. Stumptown founder Duane Sorenson opened the eatery on busy Division.Southeast Division Street is a real mess right now. There are “no parking” signs everywhere. Side streets are closed off. Huge, half-finished buildings loom over the sidewalks.

Right in the heart of it all sits Roman Candle Baking Co., a bakery, cafe and restaurant with several different personalities. Roman Candle opened in July in the old Stumptown Coffee roasting facility, and the owner is Stumptown’s founder, Duane Sorenson. His high-end Italian restaurant, Ava Gene’s, is next door, and some of the older restaurant’s traits have been passed on to the younger — from the marble bench outside to an outstanding winter salad inside.

The bakery is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. There are pastries as well as a full line of breads — sourdough baguettes, rustic loaves, brioche — and light breakfast items based on the general idea of toast. You can get jam and butter on raisin-walnut bread, smoked trout and crème fraîche on super grain bread, or a duck egg and cheddar on a bun, and, of course, Stumptown’s potent, top-of-the-line espresso.

Lunch brings a house interpretation of Italian-American deli standards: cured meats with provolone and pickled peppers, or deconstructed meatballs stuffed in trappezino.

An Italian wedding soup, similar to minestrone, has a light tomato base swimming with beans and lots of fresh, hearty escarole. In the center is one big, round, burnished meatball, tender and porky, topped with grated grana padano cheese. It’s not a large bowl of soup, but it’s rounded out nicely with toasted pizza bianca (a member of the focaccia family), which you have to order separately.

I feel a little provincial even mentioning that Roman Candle is a bit pricey. Quality is the mandate here, as a look around the room will tell you. The communal tables are huge slabs of satiny, beautifully grained wood surrounded by chic retro-modern chairs. The tile work is stunning. The pizza oven would have been shared by an entire village back in the Old Country. The bathrooms are worthy of a glossy magazine spread.

But despite all this, there also are glimpses of the traditional Italian bar-cafes that inspired Roman Candle, especially at night. As in Italy, there’s the row of arcane grappas and digestifs lined up behind the marble counter; I played it safe with Campari and soda.

Arancini, the Italian rice ball snack, are often too gummy or too dry, but here they’re perfect: a crackling shell holding a melting, flavorful interior. A version with tomato, mozzarella and basil was good but the spinach version was even better, bright green inside and peppery with arugula and pecorino.

From a handful of salad choices, a platter of winter greens stood out for its expert balance of crisp, bitter radicchio with juicy grapefruit, sweet mild fennel, and candied walnuts flavored with coriander, all in a mild vinaigrette that let the salad speak for itself.

The centerpiece of the dinner menu is pizza bianca, a style of pizza with a thick, bubbly, bready crust, which is served after 5 p.m. only. The hefty, square slices are lined up in rows on the countertop so you can choose whichever one looks best. I was drawn to silvery strips of anchovy, on top of a red sauce that was mostly absorbed by the bread, and punctuated with green olives and slices of garlic. When it was heated and served, it all came together, with the anchovies providing a pungent kick, as powerful in its way as horseradish or chili peppers.

Rosemary was the dominant note for a pizza slice with a creamy white topping of ricotta, mozzarella, and taleggio, studded with slippery, meaty king oyster mushrooms.

What makes this pizza special is the varying texture of the crust, from airy to crisp to chewy.

Texture also is the key to some fantastic desserts. Apparently no one told Matthew Zack, formerly the pastry whiz behind Alder Pastry and Desserts, that this is an Italian bakery. His carrot cake is impressively moist and tender, exotically spiced and topped with a ridiculous amount of

ridiculously good cream cheese frosting. His canelés, with origins in Bordeaux, are a neighborhood favorite — rich, caramelized, custardy miniature cakes that were born for

a coffee break.

Not that there is any shortage of places for a coffee break on Division Street. There’s a new St. Honoré Boulangerie on the same block, as well as Little T Baker down the street and Petite Provence just up the way. It’s a crowded field, and Roman Candle has the quality to rise to the top, but it might do well to streamline its identity.

7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, 3377 S.E. Division St. 971-302-6605, www.romancandlebaking.com

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