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North by Northwest

A northern Italian chef brings fresh flavors to Eugene
Photo by Athena Delene | tinyurl.com/athenadelene
Photo by Athena Delene | tinyurl.com/athenadelene

When a man grows up in Italy fishing for octopus and has a tattoo of an octopus on his arm, you can be pretty sure that he knows how to cook an octopus. At Noli Italian restaurant in Eugene, you won’t ever see chef and owner Davide Mulone (DAH-vee-day) serving fried calamari. “I never like fried calamari,” he says. “Where I come from, calamari is grilled. We do nice calamari here, quick on a flat-top with a little olive oil.”

You also won’t find such Americanized dishes as chicken parmesan or alfredo. “People sometimes come in here and get upset that we don’t have those because they think that’s Italian, which it’s not,” he says. “People come here because it’s simple; it’s fresh.”  

There’s much more that chef Mulone takes from his Italian upbringing. His father owned and operated a small restaurant in Genoa, which was very similar to the one Mulone now operates at Noli, which opened as an eatery in Fifth Street Public Market in 2008. In October 2012, Mulone and his wife, Maggie McDonald, moved to a small restaurant space in the Whiteaker neighborhood formerly occupied by Nib. 

His lease at 5th Street was up for renewal, and though he says he loved being a part of the food court there and had a nice relationship with the market, it wasn’t where he wanted to be for another 5-year period. 

“My wife found this on Craigslist and she told me right away,” Mulone says of the newer location. “I came in and I just fell in love with it. It was summer and the little patio was beautiful, the door was open ...”

He’s lost in thought for a moment, summoning the view of his father’s restaurant in his mind’s eye. The restaurant was on the first floor and the family’s living space was upstairs, just like here. “My dad had a restaurant in Italy and it was the same size with the patio and everything,” he recalls. “We live upstairs here. It reminded me a lot of where I grew up. It was the perfect size; it was just too perfect of a place, exactly the same thing as where I grew up.” 

After the move, Mulone adapted his menu, keeping some family recipes and adding some more adventurous things that the business lunch crowd at 5th Street wasn’t terribly receptive to, such as risotto with squid ink. “You do a risotto or a pasta and you just take the black ink and squeeze it in,” he says. “It’s unbelievable. It has almost the taste of the ocean. That’s something that I grew up with. I tried it at the market and people were like, ‘Uh, what is that?’ so here I can introduce some things like that.”

What won’t change is his family recipe for lasagna, layered with Bolognese sauce, béchamel and ricotta, or the recipe for tiramisu, made the way his mother taught him — ladyfinger cookies topped with real Mascarpone cheese doused with amaretto liquor. There’s a drizzle of chocolate and dusting of cocoa, just enough to allow the individual flavors to shine through, with no soggy mushing together.

His chef’s gnocchi comes paired with a meat sauce Mulone’s father created, which combines creamy Bolognese sauce made with beef and pork ragu with basil pesto. “It’s a family recipe that was a mistake,” Mulone laughs. “My dad made it of sauces when he ran out and it turned out to be one of the best sauces he ever made.” 

The new summer menu features fresh, seasonal vegetarian options, such as grilled portobello mushrooms, zucchini, asparagus, bell pepper and polenta with taleggio cheese topped with arugula and roasted eggplant pesto. The foccacia bread is house-made, and the bowl of marinated cocktail olives offers tastes from Mulone’s hometown. 

“The olives are all from where I’m from,” he says. “It’s a nice menu and the prices are very reasonable for what we do here.” 

With the exception of grilled rosemary pork chops with Lyonnaise potatoes ($17) and the spaghetti with sautéed mussels, shrimp, calamari, scallops and peas in a white wine tomato sauce ($20), every entrée on the menu is $15 or less. In addition to the perennially popular tiramisu, Mulone offers panna cotta and fresh berry crostata, utilizing our area’s delicious summer fruits. 

Mulone says he’s quite happy in his new space, though sometimes he thinks about having an even smaller place, perhaps a surprising goal for such an accomplished restaurateur. Noli can seat 30 indoors, plus another 14 when the patio is open.

On weekends, Mulone turns over all of the tables two or three times per night. Yet he dreams of a 20-seat restaurant open four nights a week where he can operate much like a private chef, cooking what’s fresh right in front of his guests. 

“I see a lot of people in my experience getting bigger, bigger, bigger,” he says. “Getting bigger doesn’t mean you get better. When you get bigger you lose control of the hands-on. That’s why I have this restaurant; I want to be hands-on. I take one night a week off and I’m here all the time and I think that’s the only way to do it.”

Noli Ristorante Italiano is open 5 to 9 pm Monday through Thursday and 5 to 9:30 pm Friday and Saturday at 769 Monroe St.; 844-1663; noliitaliancafe.com.