Whiffs of sweet honey tickled my nose as I approached the front door. I found myself gliding through the garden of the Excelsior Inn; the nasal nostalgia had induced memories of my mother’s delectable homemade cornbread. The comforting memory suddenly alleviated my nerves: I hate trying new things and I’m an incredibly picky eater. The moment my leather boot met the hard wood of the foyer, I was greeted with a bright smile and a thick Italian accent. “Come, come, sit anywhere you’d like,” he said.
For the next three hours, I ate the best Italian food of my life, chatted with a former professional soccer player, toured the inn and restaurant and took photos of the local art adorning every square foot of the walls. Maybe it was the three-pound plate of pasta I devoured, or maybe the nostalgic scents prompted this realization, but I had discovered my new favorite restaurant. Having never eaten there before and living 200 feet from the building proved that some of the best places to eat are right under my nose.
Covered in vines and over 100 years old, the Excelsior Inn & Ristorante stands alone just one block from the University of Oregon. Since 1912, the building has served as a sorority and fraternity house, student housing, a dress shop, and a café. In 1972, the Excelsior Restaurant opened in the small area now known as The Bistro. By 1996, renovations were completed in order to open the Excelsior Inn––including fourteen rooms, a private dining area, a terrace dining room, and the Bistro, which features live music by local artists every weekend.
Located right off of 13th avenue and Alder Street, hundreds of students pass the restaurant every day. Do they forget the Excelsior Inn exists? After all, the gated building is quite literally hidden beneath a layer of overgrown vines and shrubs. Or is it that their starving college budgets don’t account for fine dining? Whatever it is that keeps other students out, the high-quality seasonal menu items and reasonable Bistro prices have made me an instant fan of this hidden gem.
Born in Naples, Italy, Chef and owner Maurizio Paparo proudly advocates the Slow Food Movement. He bought property in 2008 to start The Excelsior Farm: a five-acre patch in Dexter, Oregon, dedicated to growing every herb, legume, fruit and vegetable used in the restaurant (as well as his more casual Italian pizzeria in Springfield, Oregon). The Excelsior’s breakfast, Bistro, lunch, brunch, and dinner menu all feature seasonal items. During the winter they use a variety of greens such as kale and chard. This season’s Bistro menu includes three different linguine dishes, three ravioli dishes, three pizza dishes, various salads and your choice of a beef or lamb burger.
Once I had decided on an insalata Mista––a salad of mixed farm greens with creamy gorgonzola dressing––one of the chefs, Tommy Oliva, approached me asking if I would like some wheat bread he had just made from scratch. It seemed a rhetorical question to me, but he didn’t know that I would never pass up a carb-filled treat. The moment the slice met my salivating mouth, I melted.
“We make all of our bread, ravioli, pasta, and sausage in-house,” he told me. After reading and re-reading the Bistro menu, I decided to go big or go home.
Linguine all' Arrabbiata – spicy tomato sauce, homemade pesto, grilled chicken.
“I would like the Linguine all’ Arrabbiata,” I said. After the salad, I was substantially full. But then the pasta came. The noodles were unlike any noodle I’ve come across in my twenty-three years of pasta consumption. Each bite was wholesome and rich. Oliva told me they get their semolina flour (the main flour that pasta is made of) imported directly from Italy and that they are the only food establishment in town to do so. The spicy marinara was zesty and had a flavorful kick to it. The grilled chicken was seasoned to perfection and knowing that everything I ate was handmade and locally grown influenced how I felt about the pricing. Considering the cost to produce organic food, the Excelsior’s prices are reasonable.
Belly filled with pasta and ready for a nap, I thanked my server and assured her I would be back. Two days later, I brought my hesitant vegetarian roommate who lives on Kraft Mac-and-Cheese and Top Ramen noodles to the Bistro for happy hour. We ate more homemade pasta and sipped on Limoncello. I think I just became a regular.