Before Burger Stevens owner Don Salamone began layering beef patties with Tillamook cheese and fancy sauce, before he worked the line at glitzy Las Vegas kitchens like Joël Robuchon or Restaurant Guy Savoy, before he cooked 16-person dinners for British musician Robbie Williams as his private chef, Salamone would sit down to meals of Sunday sauce, meatballs, and vinegar-laden salads of romaine and chickpeas with his mother in Rochester, New York. “I always used to make fun of my mom, ‘We’re making sauce? Just sauce?’” he says, with a chuckle. The dish, of course, is an Italian American tradition: a sugo, sometimes called Sunday gravy, often made with various cuts of meat like spare ribs and ground pork.
Salamone comes from a large Italian-American family. His uncle would make Italian sausage at his butcher shop, his mother would bake Italian cookies for holidays, and the whole family would gather for celebrations over bowls of ricotta gnocchi. When the pandemic started, he felt an overwhelming urge to return to those foods, one that had been building over years. So, on a whim, he stopped selling burgers out of Southeast Portland bar Dig A Pony’s walk-up window, and instead started taking pre-orders of lasagnas, spaghetti, and eggplant parmigiana. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I started cooking, was to make my family’s Italian food. What I’m making is what we eat every week to this day,” Salamone says. “The choice to switch from burgers to Italian food was semi-spontaneous, but it’s because I wanted to feed families.”
It was a hit: The desire for comfort foods pulled in Portlanders, and Salamone began selling out week after week. Now, as restaurants prepare to reopen fully on June 30, Salamone has decided to hold onto his pandemic pop-up: Stevens Italiano will become the permanent culinary presence in Dig A Pony, before it opens as a Beaverton restaurant.
Starting Saturday, July 3, Dig A Pony will reopen on SE Grand with a menu of casual Italian fare, including four sandwiches, fried calamari with banana peppers, and ricotta gnocchi in vodka sauce. The ricotta gnocchi is true to his family’s recipe; vodka sauce, ubiquitous on the East Coast, can be harder to spot on Italian menus around the Pacific Northwest. “I don’t think I knew about potato gnocchi until I moved away from home,” Salamone says. “My entire family always made it with ricotta cheese, cheese dumplings with vodka sauce, very simple but really good.”
The sandwiches on the menu behave almost like a gradient, showing the kitchen’s transition from Burger Stevens to Stevens Italiano. The bar will still serve a beef burger, albeit one different from the Burger Stevens burger; Salamone will grind brisket for the patties in-house. “It kind of reminds me of pizza joints back home,” Salamone says. “Yeah, it’s a pizza joint, but sometimes they have a random burger on there that’s really good.” Then, Salamone will make a sort of mid-metamorphosis sandwich, an Italian sausage smash burger topped with fresh mozzarella and pepper and onions, all stacked on a garlic butter toasted bun. The sausage recipe is a take on his uncle’s, with red wine, fresh red pepper, and a beef and pork blend. From there, the other two sandwiches are quintessential Italian staples: An eggplant parm, with thin slices of lightly fried eggplant, and a chicken parm with brined, pounded, and fried chicken breasts. Both will come with tomato sauce and mozzarella, on Dos Hermanos bread. The rest of the menu consists of vegetables and snack-y bar fare: Semolina-fried calamari with pepperoncinis (a classic East Coast preparation), garlic bread, fries, salad, with a square of tiramisu for dessert. “(Tiramisu) should be nice and soft and juicy as fuck, with a little more booze than what’s supposed to be there,” he says. “It’s great, it’s not over the top, with high quality mascarpone.”
While Stevens Italiano chugs along in Portland proper, Salamone will chip away at the final product: a new restaurant in Beaverton. Salamone and his wife, Kate Laurents, are renovating a building on SW First, which they hope to open as Stevens Italiano in spring 2022. There, Salamone will make a full slate of pastas, brick chicken, and other larger entrees. “I want to do some seasonal stuff mixed with things I grew up with, things my family would be comfortable ordering and eating out here,” he says.
The restaurant will have a full bar for cocktails, around 70 seats indoors and out, with a chef’s counter and a vibe reminiscent of the restaurants Salamone visited growing up. “It’s not going to be formal at all, but just a little more classy ... We’re going for a mid-century vibe, East Coast Italian, à la Rochester,” he says. “It won’t have red checkered tablecloths, but I’m hoping for black-and-white checkered floors, some of the stereotypical shit. It’s just a little more of an updated version.”
Stevens Italiano will open at 12055 SW First Street in Beaverton; until then, people can eat Salamone’s Italian fare at Dig A Pony, 736 SE Grand Avenue.
• Stevens Italiano [Official]
• Dig A Pony [Instagram]
• Cult Cart Burger Stevens Morphs into Stevens Italiano [PoMo]