Welcome back to Behind Cart Doors, an Eater feature that goes inside popular Portland food carts — literally — to see how kitchen set-ups work in those tiny cart spaces.
Rachael Grossman has planned on opening a restaurant since she started cooking as a little girl. Though she is trained in French classical technique, her first love has always been Italian food. Grossman mastered the art of Italian cuisine while living and cooking professionally in Italy. By late 2009 it was obvious to Grossman and her partner, Tyler Johnston, that they needed to quit their jobs and open an al fresco Italian restaurant. "We wanted to take authentic Italian food and free it from the confines of the stodgy 'fine dining' atmosphere," said Johnston. Three years ago Grossman and Johnston did just that when they opened Artigiano, a "pasta wagon" that features handmade pastas and rustic Italian fare. Although they've only moved once to become more centrally located at 3302 SE Division Street, Johnston says they've never wavered from their original concept: "We only wanted to open a handmade pasta cart."
While Grossman walks Eater through some pasta-making, Johnston talks about prepping in the mobile kitchen, cooking on a Coleman camping stove, and the most famous people to order from Artigiano's window.
What's the size of your cart?
16 feet by 8 feet.
What's the size of your cart window that looks out onto the street?
How much prep/fridge space do you have, and how does that affect what you offer on your menu?
We have a full size commercial reach-in fridge and low-boy and a full size reach-in freezer and four burners. We don't need much more space than that. We like to keep the menu small and simple anyway. We change the menu as often as we like, so the chef never gets bored.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of having limited space?
A smaller space encourages cleanliness. We can't think of any disadvantages. The fact is, we love our kitchen; it is exactly what we want. Rachael can cook things on a Coleman camping stove that will make your head spin; the quality of her food doesn't depend on equipment and gadgetry. Our trailer is spacious, more so, in fact, than many restaurant kitchens?.If there were more than two of us I imagine it might start to feel crowded. [But] since we are quality control freaks, we have yet to hire an employee. The disadvantage of operating out a mobile kitchen is the extreme seasonality of the business; it has nothing to do with our kitchen or equipment.
How do you make fresh pasta out of a cart?
We have a five-foot cutting board that we put over the sink. We roll it out, hang it on a laundry rack to dry and cut it by hand.
Do you make the pasta in the morning, and then cook it at night?
All prep happens in the mobile kitchen. The pasta making all happens before service.
You get an order at the window: Walk us through what the next steps are. i.e., how are the cooking/assembling tasks divvied up?
I greet, host, take orders, run plates to tables, bus, handle money. I also handle garde manger, expediting, and desserts. Rachael cooks each pasta order.
If you could "wish list" one item to have room for, what would it be?
A wine cellar.
Who is the most famous person to order from your window?
Some of the people we have enjoyed serving include: Dead Winter Carpenters (rock stars), Cathy Whims (chef), Dana Bowen & Todd Coleman (editors for SAVEUR magazine), Natalie Forte & Nathan Lyon (TV personalities), Anne Hubatch (vintner).
What's the weirdest thing you've witnessed out of your window?
Nothing is weird in Portland, is it? [But] we once had to watch a bum urinate on the sidewalk in front of our cart.