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Recipe for Relaxation

Deep in the Oregon woods, a top Portland chef unwinds by cooking a simple Italian meal for his friends and family.

For most people who go camping in Oregon, an Italian feast involves boiling spaghetti atop a Coleman Stove, pouring out as much of the starchy water as possible, adding a jar of marinara sauce and passing around the aluminum pot. All while sitting on a log in the withering rain.

The proprietors of Assaggio, one of Portland's best trattorias, do things differently. They interpret an Italian feast as a progression of as many as a dozen dishes--bruschetta, salad, several pastas, gelato and pastry--each paired with a different wine. Even if the meal in question is served around the fire pit behind their WPA-era cabin in the woods beside the Zigzag River.

Eating outdoors at their retreat in the Mt. Hood National Forest is how Darryl And Sarah Joannides unwind after a grueling five-night routine of rotating 200 people through 50 seats in 4 1/2 hours at Assaggio, a former antiques shop in the up-and-coming Sellwood neighborhood. "I've seen so many friends burn out, so many relationships fall apart," says Darryl, 34, Assaggio's self-taught chef, a former Manhattan attorney who returned home to Portland in 1992 and opened his own place three years later. His wife, Sarah, runs the front of the house. "At the cabin, Sarah and I don't even have a television. We're completely disconnected from the restaurant world."

Well, sort of. Because the retreat is just off a dicey mountain pass, 30 miles from the nearest store, the two inevitably end up bringing a lot of their restaurant with them. On a typical Sunday morning, they'll rise early and raid Assaggio's walk-in refrigerator and its 4,000-bottle wine cellar--a collection of 150 appellations and more than 50 varieties--load everything into the back of their four-wheel-drive station wagon and drive due east for an hour. At the cabin, they'll back the car up to the front porch, transfer provisions to the pantry and light a fire in the river-stone hearth to chase out the chill, while their wire-haired dachshunds, Dolcetto and Bacio, roust the mice. Sometimes the couple will unfold lounge chairs out back under the Douglas firs and for the rest of the day do nothing but sit and listen to the Zigzag murmur in its banks.

But frequently, they invite friends and family for a Sunday afternoon picnic in the woods. A recent gathering included Darryl's sister and brother-in-law and their newborn son, plus some friends from Portland. Darryl slow-roasted eggplant on the kitchen's electric range while Sarah and the guests sat on logs around the fire pit, sipping wine poured from a magnum and grilling bread for the first course, eggplant bruschetta. Then Darryl brought out a specialty of the restaurant (assaggio means sampling): three different kinds of pasta, each with its own sauce--peppery tomato, creamy Gorgonzola and fennel seed-wild mushroom. For dessert, plates of warm berry crumble and homemade blackberry gelato were passed all around.

After the dishes were washed and the guests had left, Darryl and Sarah settled back into their routine: a glass of port and a game of Scrabble In which only italian words count.

Story by Ted Katauskas, a Portland, Oregon-based writer who never ventures into the Pacific Northwest wilderness without his Outback Oven (perfect for baking focaccia, even in the withering rain).

Published June 2000
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