Marco Roberti

Old World New
Gilda’s Italian Restaurant

WORDS Justin Fields, Emily Penn | Photography Tim Sugden

After living, working and studying abroad in Italy for many years, Chef Marco Roberti returned home to open Gilda’s Italian Restaurant (1601 SW. Morrison). Marco focuses on simple, quality ingredients and traditional preparation methods. This simplicity and Marco’s great care for his craft are what sets Gilda’s apart from other Italian restaurants in Portland.

Tucked beneath a picturesque awning just south of Burnside, an inviting glow emanates through the windows outside Gilda’s, and stepping through the doors feels like walking into an old friend’s home. The smell of garlic sizzling in olive oil permeates the air as you settle in for an evening of authentic Italian food prepared with the best ingredients the Pacific Northwest has to offer.

Gilda’s is named in honor of Marco’s grandmother Gilda, who deeply influenced Marco’s own culinary journey. Her legendary homemade pastas, fresh seafood, pizzas, braciole, meatballs, soups and desserts are all a part of the menu.

Gilda’s was recently voted the #1 Italian Restaurant in Portland by an OregonLive reader’s poll. Even with this impressive achievement, Marco continues to carry a humble attitude towards his restaurant.

You’ve lived, studied, worked and traveled all over Europe. What was that like for you? I lived in Firenze (Florence) where I went to cooking school at Apicius, where I earned my “Masters in Italian Cuisine”. During this time, I worked at three restaurants in Firenze – Bucca del Orafo, La Bottega del Buon Caffe, and Ganzo. On the weekends I took the train to Cortona where I stayed with my cousins and worked at Ristorante Tonino. When my schooling was over I moved to Avola in Sicily. It is located just south of Syracusa in the very southeast corner of the island. I worked at a seafood restaurant called Ristorante A’Rasta and lived at the Bellafiore family’s farm house on the coast.

Having spent time cooking in America and abroad, what are some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed when it comes to attitudes toward food? I’ve noticed many differences, but the top difference that I notice with Italians is that they regularly shop daily for what they will prepare that day or evening. Not the huge overloaded shopping spree for the week that’s so common here. They also take their time when eating, not rushing off to do whatever. Eating is a more sacred event in Italy.

What other differences have you noticed? Another difference is that they tend to eat things more seasonally. For instance, artichokes in the spring, tomatoes in the summer, squash and wild mushrooms in the fall and winter, etc. The restaurants in turn highlight those foods on their menus seasonally. Northern Italy has a climate more like Oregon and Washington, central Italy like northern California, and Southern Italy like Southern California and Florida. There are abundant variations of food, and much of Italy is comprised of rich volcanic soil, so the flavor of the fruits and vegetables are amazing.

Tell us about one of your favorite places in Italy. The famous “Central Market” in Florence is one of the most incredible indoor and outdoor markets in the world. Shopping is done daily, and the variation of food products is mind blowing. Watching the older locals negotiate pricing was always entertaining and is quite an art form.

What makes Italy such a special place for food? One of the most amazing gifts Sicily has are its active volcanoes. Depending on where the wind was blowing light amounts of ash would land on farm fields and orchards, constantly fertilizing them. The result was the best fruits and vegetables that you will ever eat. The entire country is blessed with an incredible abundance of produce.

It sounds like your grandmother, Gilda, had a big influence on you, too. My grandma Gilda – pronounced “Jill-da” not “Gill-da” – and I had a special relationship. She had a huge impact on me with my passion for food and cooking and as a person. Along with my grandma, my mom and my aunt are also fantastic cooks. I was lucky enough to grow up with three strong women that loved to cook and entertain and from this was the beginning of my culinary journey. We grew up with great food and a strong sense of duty to our family. Sunday dinners were the best! Holidays were even better, always filled with love. My Grandma’s life was dedicated to her family. She would have given the shirt off her back for anyone.

How have you honored Gilda’s food philosophy at your restaurant? Grandma taught me a lot of recipes, but the real culinary gift she taught me was technique. How you treat a vegetable, how you blanch something, how you brine meat, how you par cook potatoes and then fry them in the leftover olive oil and chicken fat in the cast iron pan, how you season properly, and how you stuff herbs under the skin, and much more!

What’s the one dish at Gilda’s that you think everyone must try? Everyone must try my Grandma’s meatballs. Hands down the best. When they are being made, cooked and simmered they fill the restaurant with an unbelievable smell, and for me that smell is a nostalgic love of being back in Grandma’s kitchen helping her make and cook them. Like the scene in “Ratatouille” when Anton Ego takes the first bite and drops the fork. (Laughs)

What’s your recipe for a successful restaurant? It’s simple. We buy the best domestic and imported products possible.We buy organic as much as possible and buy sustainable seafood. We have a core menu and we highlight seasonal products, and never ever skimp on quality.We do not buy commodity meat. Most of our meat is from the northwest, humanely raised and only fed natural ingredients. We also only cook with extra virgin olive oil, period. Along with butter of course but no other oils. We use a lighter extra virgin for our sautéing and a more robust one for finishing. It is so ridiculous when I hear chefs say, “Oh, but it doesn’t have a high smoking point.” Yeah, but we are sautéing, we are not high heat wok stir frying. The flavor from extra virgin olive oil and good old salt and pepper is the key ingredient in Italian food, and just great food in general. We keep things simple and treat the products with respect.

What makes Gilda’s different from other Italian restaurants in Portland and worth consideration on a Friday night? What I wanted to recreate at Gilda’s was simple – I enjoy making people happy with food. I feel it is a sacred act to bring family and friends together to share each other’s company over food and drink. I love to eat good nutritious food and want to share that with the world like my Grandma did for us. That means that we know how to cook Italian food properly. Our food is traditional regional Italian with a modern approach and with a little Northwest fusion. We offer a variety of fresh seafood dishes, many different organic salads, and even vegetarian and vegan options. 95% of what we cook is scratch made. In our lounge we offer hand tossed pizzas, a serious burger with a chuck and brisket grind, and many small plate options. We have 10 taps of local beers, a great wine list of imported and domestic varietals, and craft cocktails in our “speakeasy” style lounge. We also have a solid happy hour menu that we offer twice a day and all day on Mondays.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as a restaurant owner?
The most valuable lesson that I learned as a restaurant owner is simple – treat your employees with respect and always appreciate your customer. Never take either of them for granted, because without them, you are nothing.

I know you as a guy who really enjoys the outdoors, great music, fine wine and whiskey – why is that important? I do enjoy the tranquility of the outdoors. It’s my zen place where I unwind from the stress of restaurant life. Traveling is my favorite thing to do. I love seeing and experiencing new places, people and food. You grow from those experiences and it gives you a chance to reflect on your life and put new ideas in motion.