David Sigal and Blake Foster are mainly known for their pop-ups. The two were behind the wild and eccentric cocktail program known as Zoo Bar, while Sigal founded Mian and co-founded Sunshine Noodles with chef Diane Lam. But their next project will be a more permanent one: Gabbiano’s, coming to Northeast Portland, is an upcoming Italian-American restaurant serving staples like mozzarella sticks, chicken parmesan, duck marsala, and panna cotta alongside bold takes on classic drinks. The restaurant will open Wednesday, January 12 at the space formerly home to Yakuza on Northeast 30th and Killingsworth, as first reported by Bridgetown Bites.
The pair have worked together many times over the years, and while each of them found work during the pandemic — Sigal at Mediterranean Exploration Company and Foster running the bar for Paadee and Langbaan — they wanted to open something more permanent and personal. Over the last two years, with the anxiety and distress of COVID-19, they both kept coming back to the comfort of Italian-American food, cooking pasta dishes together and sharing their histories. Sigal grew up eating red sauce pasta and chicken parmesan, and Foster’s first restaurant job at 15 was at Mama D’s, an Italian-American restaurant in California.
“When it came down to do this project, Italian-American food just made so much sense,” says Foster. “It’s in our blood and our history, and... it’s what really brings us comfort, especially in these crazy times.” This culminated in the decision to open Gabbiano’s, which means seagull in Italian, a play on Sigal’s last name as well as an homage to the fact that apostrophes are “part and parcel with the scene,” says Foster.
“It’s whimsical and fun,” says Sigal. “And that’s what Italian-American dining is. We could all use a bit more joy, whimsy, fun, and comfort in these days.”
The team, which includes Daniel Pickens-Jones of Meta Pizza, found a chef in Daniel Rehbein, whose experience includes Bantam Tavern and Piccone’s Corner. The challenge, Sigal says, was to find a chef who understood and appreciated Italian-American dining but who could make it their own.
“It’s a tough challenge for a chef. There’s so much history with the food it can be intimidating to approach,” he says. “but [Rehbein] really understood how to respect this food and also make it his own... It’s unique to him but really reflects the Italian American food we want to make.”
Part of what impressed the team was Rehbein’s “Portland” approach to making Italian-American dining — he might be making dishes one would find on a red-and-white checkered table cloth in New York, but he’ll be sourcing from local farmers and purveyors and adding his own tweaks. Take, for example, the restaurant’s signature take on mozzarella sticks, which involves baking the cheese in silicone shot glasses before breading, deep frying, and filling with marinara sauce; the resulting dish is something like an edible shot glass made of cheese. Chef Rehbein’s personal touch also appears in his squid ink pasta with crab, mint, and brown butter, known as “girlfriend pasta” — he’s only only served it to his girlfriend previously (Sigal says she has given permission for it to grace the menu at Gabbiano’s).
All of that being said, many of the dishes at Gabbiano’s will be true homages to red sauce classics. Diners will be able to saddle up to the bar for an order of fried calamari and a Caesar salad, and Sigal is particularly excited about the chicken parmesan and duck marsala. Surprisingly, spaghetti may not be on the opening menu, but the restaurant will open with a similar, square pasta called chitara, served with a classic red sauce and the option for house-made meatballs (which can also be ordered a la carte).
The bar, too, takes the familiar and adds a creative touch. While the trope of “classics with a twist” is well-worn at this point, Sigal and Foster have built a reputation for their offbeat, lively drinks — in other words, the twists here will be thoughtful and truly inventive. One example is their take on a Lemon Drop: A far cry from the ‘90s version of the drink, this one includes roasted lemon-infused vodka, house-made saffron limoncello, and lemon juice, finished with lemon salt. The obligatory New York sour is made with Lewis and Clark bourbon from Hood River, oregano syrup made in house, and oregano oil made by Rehbein; it’s topped with a float of lambrusco rather than a still red wine. “It won’t take you out of your comfort zone, but it’s a really unique approach to a cocktail,” says Sigal. One area the restaurant will hew classic, though, is the wine selection: While both Foster and Sigal are fans of the bolder, newer styles of natural wines that permeate the Portland dining scene, they’re sticking with classic “Italian wines, made by Italians” for now.
Fans of Yakuza — or the brief tenure of Ichiza Kitchen in that building — will find a different but recognizable space. The general shape of the restaurant remains with some added decor, including curved wooden bistro chairs and the obligatory photos of pasta on the walls. The popular back patio now sports a pergola and should be open as soon as the dining room, with heaters and rain covers. In the spring and summer, the team is looking forward to throwing open the garage doors on either side of the dining room, essentially making it open air. Proof of vaccination will be required for all diners.
Gabbiano’s opens at 5411 NE 30th Avenue on Wednesday, January 12. Its hours will start at 4 to 10 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays.
- Gabbiano’s [Official]
- Gabbiano’s Will Open on 30th Ave Near NE Killingsworth [Bridgetown Bites