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This is still Day 1 of our 3-day Oregon coast and Redwoods National Park road trip. We had started off the day with some Scandinavian brunch at Broder in Portland, then traveled down the Oregon coast from Cannon bay, past the Nehalem bay and onwards to the Tillamook bay. There we had stopped to tour the Tillamook Creamery, opting for some amazingly creamy and indulgent ice cream before we continued our trip down the coast.

We drove past Tillamook bay, explored Cape Meares (and the Three Cape scenic alternate route), drove past the Netarts bay and to Cape Lookout. The views at Cape Lookout – wow – truly incredible! By then we were beginning to fall behind in our trip a little, spending too much time being excitedly distracted by all the scenic drives and vista points. So we buckled down to it, resisted the countless stops we wanted to make as we zipped past Reedsport and the Oregon dunes, and prioritized.

Soon, we had caught up and could carve out the time for a laid back dinner at Coos Bay, which is where we had reservations to spend the night. If we had done our research right, it seemed like Little Italy in Coos Bay was a very popular local favorite. To make sure that we didn’t arrive past closing time, we cut out one more stop, and chose not to check in first, but instead, drove straight to downtown Coos Bay. Surprisingly, parking was a breeze, and after we had stowed away our GPS and camera gear into the glove compartment and the car trunk respectively, we crossed the street and marched right into Little Italy.

Little Italy was a very cute little establishment. As you walk past the big, heavy door, you have the option of either going up a few steps or strolling along the ramp with gilded handrails. The foyer was a little dark – maybe they were going for the mysterious and old-school ambiance, but I didn’t quite get it. We looked around in confusion a little bit – we were not sure whether we should go right ahead and grab a table, or wait for someone to seat us. The hostess stand was empty and unmanned, so we were not able to readily find someone to bail us out of the confused state of being. As we peered into the main dining room, we eyed a full bar to the left, outfitted with old-school leather topped stools. The rest of the room had maybe a dozen or so tables scattered comfortably throughout the room, and most tables were filled. Someone noticed us peering around and quickly came by to seat us.

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A simple but elegant vase of fresh carnations greeted us at the table. The blooms brightly smiled back at us – in deep red, purple and the variegated white with the streaks of red. A confusing ensemble, actually, now that I think about it. While deep red carnations signify deep love and affection (and the light reds denoting admiration), the white with the red streaks is meant to symbolize the regret of a love that can not be shared. The purple ones are widely used in France as a funeral flower – expressing love for the dear departed (while the pink ones symbolize a mother’s undying love for her children). So what was our dining table conversation piece of a vase symbolizing in aggregate? Best to give up and move on to food – which is precisely what we did that night.

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After spying the mounds of food being brought out to the other tables, we picked a couple of entrees to share amongst the three of us. An incredibly smart idea, it turns out. We ordered the eggplant parmesan and a chicken marsala with mushrooms. Both entrees came out with a mixed salad, angel hair pasta tossed in a bright and flavorful marinara sauce, and complemented by a medley of freshly steamed veggies.

The salad was fun – almost a vivacious and energetic burst of flavor on our plates. We had asked for the creamy vinaigrette on the side, so we could drizzle as we needed. The salad came with the standard – the leafy, the crunchy, and the tomato-y. The surprise lurking under the pile of baby spinach and lettuce were the chickpeas: a creamy rich textural complement to the crunch and juice of the rest of the salad. Oh how I would have loved to see some roasted beets as well, and maybe even some diced hard-boiled eggs. Ah well.

Once the salad was cleared, the entrees arrived. The color of the steamed veggies really helped brighten up each dish. The yellow and green squash as well as carrots were all sliced on the bias into chunky slices. The cauliflower and broccoli florets were sizeable, firm with a bit of a bite, but still tender and juicy. The vegetables had to be pretty fresh to start with – otherwise you can tell, specially with a bold preparation as just plain steaming: you can’t really mask days-old sadness of veggies if you don’t have the cover-up of sauces and spices!

The angel hair pasta was perfectly al-dente, with the bright marinara sauce clinging happily to each pasta strand. Could the marinara sauce have benefitted from a smidgen more oregano? Perhaps. Could the sauce really come to life with some roasted garlic and basil notes running through it? Perhaps. But the simple yet elegant pasta and sauce was definitely a well-executed, if safe, side to pair with our ordered entrees. Would the pasta win any contests? Don’t hold your breath. Did it satisfy regardless? Definitely!

Along the theme of safe-but-well-executed, the chicken marsala was pretty good too. The chef clearly has a light hand with the breading, so we were not wading through gummy pools of soggy breadcrumbs in a pool of marsala sauce. Instead, the chicken retained a mild crunchiness that held up to the juicy moisture of the sauce. The mushroom slices must have come out of a can. Would it be that much harder to use fresh mushrooms? Probably not. It was more of a quick eyebrow-raise rather than a deal breaking collapse of the dish itself. I ate quite happily.

The highlight of the meal though, was the eggplant parmesan. It was served almost like a thick cut of chicken breast – an ovoid slice languishing under a blanket of marinara sauce and cheese. As I cut through it, I was surprised at the thickness of the slice – wondering how the eggplant would be flavored through, or whether it would be cooked evenly. As I dug in through the slice though, I realized that it was not at all what I had thought it was – instead, there were paper thin slices of eggplant stacked up with alternating films of the sauce, cemented together with the melty glue of the cheese. The resulting eggplant parmesan was not only flavored through properly and cooked through evenly, but it was simply heavenly!

Interestingly enough, when the server came to inquire how we were doing and whether we needed more bread … that’s when we realized that we hadn’t received any bread basket to begin with. Oops 🙂 None of us really missed it, though now I wish I had had the opportunity to try out their olive oil and balsamic vinegar …

Oh and in case you were wondering – I did forget to take pictures of the dish before we dug in, and when I did remember … let’s just say the thought came a moment too late and we had just wrapped up scraping off the last crumb and sauce by the time I remembered 🙂

Little Italy was a lovely meal at the end of a lovely day – the comfort of the familiar and expected, with the right touch of the fresh and the new, and a decidely confounding combination of colorful carnations to mull over the symbolism of!

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