LAST SEPTEMBER, Luce opened its doors in stark contrast to the usual e-mail blasts, sly Facebook leaks, and parade of soft, medium, and loud openings that usually herald additions to Portland’s suddenly media-savvy food scene. Not even a peep. To anyone. The biggest clue as to what waits inside lies in a barely legible logo etched on a vast storefront window on a forgotten corner of E Burnside Street. The distressed typeface suggests something lost and found, but also something new and undefined—a sketch of a larger drawing to come.
At tiny oak tables set with gold-rimmed plates and antique soup spoons, an understated menu kicks off with a carnival of $2 antipasti ready for impromptu table parties and ends with a slice of double-decker, musty-liquor-soaked sponge cake billowing pastry cream and pistachios. In between come a fine baked trout that tastes straight from the campfire pan and a bowl of “spaghetti, garlic & hot peppers”—the simple clarity of sublime perfection. You can add clams for $2. (Yes, you should.) Two bites in, the question arises: have I stumbled into a Fellini movie, another roadside attraction in Lombardy, or a food lover’s minimart as imagined in Portland? Inside the door, the outlines of Luce (pronounced loo-chay) begin to sharpen across a black-and-white checkered floor: the profound smell of a grandma’s kitchen, the happy tootle of clarinet music, the clinking of glasses filled with the coolest little collection of Italian wines in the city, and the sense that you are part of something larger.
We don’t know. It’s not even clear that the owners know. Luce is a spirit and idea, an unfolding work in progress from two eccentrics with great taste and a fondness for Italian comfort cooking. John Taboada is best known for Navarre, his icon of extreme community-farm eating and adventurous wine drinking just up the street. His wife and co-owner, Giovanna Parolari, a scavenger supreme, runs the offbeat ladies’ boutique Una nearby, where chic fashions pose next to found vintage pottery. The inspiration for Luce? Their travel haunts: what they call the “old-men places” in Italy, where the locals eat, shop, and drink.
Candlelit shelves stretch from the floor clear to the ceiling, inviting a treasure hunt for imported foods and household goods that scream small-town Italy, two cobblestone blocks off of the main road. Great spools of blue-striped baker’s twine stand proudly among splendid olive oils, controne hot peppers (a pinch gets you there), stacks of sardine cans, and colorful pastas. A humble box hides the flavor-intensive sun-dried sea salt (sale) found in Sicilian groceries.