Enoteca Nostrana, the newest restaurant from Portland old guard chef Cathy Whims, will open April 13, and as the Oregonian reported last week, the place is stunning, something closer to a Soho or Las Vegas club than a neighborhood wine bar. On a Thursday preview night, Whims strolls through the spot holding a glass of rosé, no longer sparkling, and is all giggles. Her new spot feels youthful and fun, with seats that look like champagne corks and plenty of jaw-dropping platinum-white lights. Flanked by her two co-conspirators, director of operations Nicholas Suhor (Nostrana) and wine and spirits director Austin Bridges (previously D.O.C.), she’s happy to host Morrison’s latest party.
The brightest spot in Enoteca Nostrana is a two-story wine cellar, a column of incandescence at the very center of her new restaurant. It’s eye-catching; throughout the night, Whims excitedly brings guests into the room, where rows of bottles lay untouched in the sound-proof chamber. Here’s the secret: Enoteca Nostrana isn’t just a wine bar or an event space for Nostrana fans. Enoteca Nostrana is a school of wine and classic Italian food disguised as a nightclub.
For those who don’t know, Cathy Whims is kind of a big deal. Before she opened the classic Italian restaurant Nostrana, which is perpetually packed, or her casual pizza place Oven and Shaker, she was stepping off a plane at PDX in need of a job. Within hours she snagged herself a spot at Produce Row Cafe, and quickly worked her way into the kitchen at Portland’s now-shuttered grand dame, Genoa. She went on to co-own Genoa and train with the Julia Child of Italian food, Marcella Hazan. In 2005, she opened Nostrana, where she was nominated for Best Chef Northwest six years in a row.
But she doesn’t act like a rockstar. She describes Genoa as “a hippie restaurant, filled with a bunch of Reed College students and artists.” It’s there she says she developed a love for communal decision-making, which played a big role in the development of Enoteca Nostrana. Suhor saw the potential in the yoga space next door for a casual, fun wine bar, and after a bit of persistence, she gave him the keys and let him loose.
Sitting in a private nook above the main bar — Enoteca Nostrana has two levels, with several smaller rooms for private dining — Bridges opens a bottle of white wine. Suhor, seated next to Whims in the ‘70s sand yellow booth, holds out his glass, and the three of them discuss the bottles of wine that changed them, or hooked them; Whims remembers a bottle at Bar Mingo fondly, as well as an Alsatian riesling she drank in an Athens wine bar.
“I love wine, but 12-and-a-half years ago, when I opened Nostrana, all my employees drank cocktails. It made me so sad!” she says. “Then, Nicholas (Suhor) started a wine education program. The perception really changed with our younger employees.” Suhor and Bridges jumped on the new project, building a colossal bottle list (think: in the thousands) with the firm understanding that choosing a wine shouldn’t be daunting. Instead of handing guests a tome of a bar menu, Bridges will walk them through their own preferences — “What do you like? What flavors do you like to taste?” — before recommending a specific wine.
Suhor says walking through flavors is easier now than it has been, as more Portlanders wax poetic about IPAs and negronis. “Cocktail appreciation and beer appreciation introduced people to this idea that you can think about what you’re drinking,” Suhor says. “What better time to do this; it’s the new-school, old-school thing: trick Portland into having a great service experience without being pretentious.”
That goes for the menu, as well. Whims is bubbly and fun until Italian food comes up, especially all the Portland Italian restaurants opening this spring (Il Solito, Cortezzi, Terrane). Then, it’s very serious business.
“What people don’t really understand about Italian food is that simplicity is perfection, and you can’t do simplicity without the best ingredients,” Whims says. “I went through a decade of unlearning.” She’ll talk for hours about Ayers Creek farm, where she sources radicchio among other things. She says food of place — dishes that are grown and taste like the land from which its sourced — is the key to great Italian food.
Details on her menu are still slim; Whims told Portland Monthly to expect customizable spaghetti, with optional toppings like anchovies or olives. If it’s anything like Nostrana, it’ll likely involve what she calls “the true spirit of Italian food.”
“It’s easy to say that there’s too much Italian food,” Whims says. “If you stay true to the true spirit of Italian food, they will come. The purity of it, with a glass of wine? I don’t know what else you need.”
The restaurant will be open from 4 p.m. to midnight daily.
• Enoteca Nostrana [Official]
• All Nostrana coverage [EPDX]
• Nostrana chef Cathy Whims is opening a Euro-style wine bar and it’s gorgeous [The O]
• Celebrated Chef Cathy Whims to Open Enoteca Nostrana [PoMo]