Chances are if you find yourself daydreaming of a porchetta sandwich, a bowl of pasta with a runny egg or a big old pile of Dirty Fries, it’s this face that you can affix your blame for lack of productivity.
You see, Rick Gencarelli is the guy who turned a modest little food cart serving up simple sandwiches and fries into his outlandishly successful brick and mortar, Lardo, and then double-downed with a pasta restaurant, Grassa.
While many would stop there, he kept going.
Another Lardo. And then last spring, a second Grassa on NW 23rd.
In my occasional posts, Meet Your Maker, I like to sit down and talk to people in the Portland food world and hear what makes them tick. And how they came to be making the food that are so damn crave worthy in this town.
In the case of Steven Lawrence, I got to tour his private chocolate studio and taste some of his creations.
In the case of Rick, we sat down at his newest Grassa and just talked food.
I’d read enough about him aforehand that we didn’t need to delve too much into his background; I knew about the high-profile spots at Olives and Miramar (both Todd English restaurants) and at the farm-to-table restaurant at Shelburne Farms in Vermont.
What I didn’t know was the backstory on how the cart came to pass — and how Portland’s first cart-to-brick and mortar success came to be.
Turns out about eight years ago he was looking for something new after many years of working for others, and he agreed to scout out a location for an upscale East Coast restaurant chain that was looking to add a flatbread restaurant here in Portland.
The lease fell through and then the owners of that place panicked and left Portland.
And this left Rick without a job — but with a newfound appreciation for this town. He loved the food, the people, everything about it for him and his family, but not sure what to do next.
“Any other city, I’d have lots of connections to get started with a new venture. But not Portland. It was like the one city in the U.S. I didn’t know anybody but my wife and I loved this place and so we jumped all in.”
He laughed at the memory. “Originally I had no idea what I was going to do but I knew that it was time to be my own boss and I had the luxury of a supportive wife with a good-paying career.”
It was his wife, Sheila, who actually recommended he open up a cart, and having toured a number of these (this was back in 2009 when the cart world was still relatively new) he was really intrigued– and impressed — with some of the talent out there.
The Lardo cart was born — on a wing and a prayer. Rick told me that the name was one that he’d been thinking about for a while, and when he realized no one was making authentic porchetta sandwiches and the like, he thought this concept might be a good fit for this town.
He bought the cart and for almost two long years he pounded out one sandwich after another, wooing and winning raves in particular for his porchetta sandwich and fries.
I remember stopping at that cart circa 2010 and meeting Rick briefly at the time; it was the best looking/most aromatic cart in the pod — and I remember him being super friendly and giving me extra caper aioli for my exceptional fries.
As much as I wanted to save the extra half of my sandwich for later, it was physically impossible.
I gorged because I had no choice.
Rick’s food is like that sometimes — you’ve got the good guy and the bad guy whispering on each shoulder but with one of those sandwiches, fries or pasta in front of you, you’re powerless to resist. You’re dangerously all in.
(C’mon, could you resist this amazing looking cannelloni?)
He promised his wife that the cart was part of a marketing strategy to figure out how to make a proper living, and if in two years he couldn’t get it together, he’d do something else.
Slogging away in a cold cart in the rainy season when only your most rabid followers show up is no fun. Nor is leaving work only to go home and start cooking pork at home on an all-night slow braise so that you can wake up with sufficient supplies for the following day. Day in, day out.
But the Lardo cart was gathering legions of new fans daily and the buzz (and press) kept growing.
In time, Kurt Huffman of ChefStable and other investors opted in — and Lardo on Hawthorne was born (just shy of the cart’s two year anniversary).
Kurt, having eaten enough of Rick’s food (and seen all the gaga fans surrounding him), predicted success on Day One, Rick remembers.
How big? I asked.
“Producing two hundred items from my cart was a HUGE day for me, like my biggest. That first day on Hawthorne we did 800 — and that was just the beginning.”
Rick shakes his head thinking back to those cart days — and how to this day he’s inundated with calls, emails and texts from people who want to start a cart and ask his advice.
“How do I do it? What kind of advice do you have if I am set on opening up a cart of my own?”
His first piece of advice? “Don’t do it.“
Second piece? “No, really, I mean it. Don’t.”
“It’s a nightmare, no way to live. You get up, you work all day, breaking your back, the rains come, no one’s out, it’s cold, it’s boring, it’s… just, no. And then when you’re not working at the cart you’re at Cash and Carry buying stuff or at the bank or paying bills or a million other work related things. I mean it, really really think about it.”
Rick reminisced for a few minutes about those first two years. Working all day in that cold cart. Cooking forty pounds of pork every night in his home oven because that was the only time — and oven big enough– to do it. Schlepping the cooked meat back to the cart each morning and hoping that he wouldn’t get busted by the city for bringing meat in from a kitchen without a permit.
Not many people know that not long ago Rick bought back that original cart (he sold the cart to a bagel lady when he opened his brick and mortar and then bought it back from Fried Egg I’m in Love folks when they downscaled from two carts to one).
He now has it parked next to his Lardo shop on Hawthorne, and free of charge he lets interested people open up a pop-up shop on the premises, giving would-be cart-preneurs a one or two day real-world test drive of their food ideas.
Unknowns and local talent will pop-up occasionally here (like Aaron Burnett of St. Jack and local darling Maya Lovelace) and Rick loves to lend a hand to others as so many have for him in his early days.
While he went off to order us some food, I checked out the place and talked to some of the staff.
Grassa on 23rd has a great open kitchen and chill vibe; it used to be a Pastini and the set-up is such that if you’re sitting at the bar you may even find yourself chatting with a line cook, like this sweetheart Jimmy who was making pasta and cannelloni at the time.
Rick, a fantastic raconteur and funny guy, wasn’t one however to let any detail escape his attention. When Jimmy was making the cannelloni, he jumped up and gave a quick tip on how to roll it so that it maintains its plump middle (and not lose the filling in the process).
I’ve got to remember that tip.
I liked how he talked to his staff–not preachy, just matter of fact and completely chill — and in no time the food started arriving at our counter.
And in the midst of this noshing, we both realized something weird.
I’d only met him twice before (once in that cart as a stranger back in 2010) and again briefly this summer, but we both had the feeling we’d met before.
I asked him where he grew up, and he told me that from middle school through high school, he’d lived in Connecticut.
Huh, me too.
Turns out he went to my high school, graduating a year after me, but the school was so big we’d not met.
We talked about summer jobs, and he talked about the time he worked at a hardware store.
It was eight blocks from my house, and I’d worked there, too. We talked about Sterling, our boss, and how it was a pretty relaxed place to work.
It gets weirder.
He said one of the worst jobs he’d worked in our town was at a seafood restaurant specializing in New England clams, and my jaw almost dropped when I heard that. I’d worked there, too.
Rick remembered that “the boss was a jerk and he used to yell at me for eating all the oyster crackers.”
This was the same boss who used to hit on me when I was 17 and then yell at me for the same snacking offense. (Hey Arthur, if you’re going to try to hook up behind your wife’s back maybe you spend less time worrying about what those same underage girls are eating while working for you. Just a piece of advice.)
This was crazy. Turns out we went to the same high school and worked at two of the same tiny places (perhaps at the same time but we were both hazy on exact dates of employment thirty-odd years ago). I then learned that another place he worked at was my family’s favorite steak place and we ate there almost every month (Rick was probably our waiter).
The coincidences and overlapping circles of our lives was really crazy.
After leaving my favorite apple sale in my neighborhood last weekend (and chatting with all my neighbors and pals), I thought about how Portland still feels like a small town sometimes.
Sure Portland has lofty ambitious and a panoply of big city hassles (more now than ever) but at its root it still feels like a community of like-minded individuals who are drawn here for many of the same reasons: quality of life, relatively affordable housing, great weather, burgeoning art and food scene — and a stellar place to raise kids.
Rick and I may have launched from the same place in Connecticut but have done vastly different things in the three decades since then, and yet here in Portland we got the chance to re-connect like this, because Portland is a non-stuffy, egalitarian town in which our fondness for food and quality of life makes friends of us all.
We talked about our mutual love of East Coast seafood (we’re both bonkers for fried clams) and our on-going quest for the perfect lobster roll (he gave me the sad news that my favorite Maine Lobster Company is now closed.)
He talked about his fondness for the lusty, simple foods of Southern Italy (his Mom and Dad originated from Calabria and Naples), and and we downed some of Grassa’s gratifying meatballs (something his Mom used to make all the time).
Comfort food at its finest.
I tackled the mountainous tangle of bucatini with squash, hazelnuts and fried sage–and even had some leftovers for the next day.
So that’s the Rick behind Lardo. Grassa.
And Phillippe’s Bread on Williams.
The first week of December Rick and Kurt will also open Beer Belly (located in the old Racion space), next to Lardo and Grassa downtown, just around the corner from Powell’s. It’ll be the perfect spot to find the best beer pr drink to go along with that Fried Chicken Sandwich and Dirty Fries or Pasta Carbonara you love so much.
So who’s Rick Gencarelli?
I’ve learned he’s just a down-home kind of guy with mad cooking skills, meaning at his places you’re getting exceptional food at a really low price.
He’s a fella who’s quick to heap praise on others (he loves the cooking at Han Oak, Renata, Bollywood and Bamboo Sushi to name just a few) and gets rev-ed up thinking about collaborations with other chefs on Lardo’s sandwich of the month (currently a very promising veggie sandwich from Rachel Yang of Portland’s newest hotspot Revelry and Revel in Seattle).
A man who’s more likely out supporting his favorite neighborhood hole-in-the-wall (Angel Food and Fun, a tiny spot in Cully serving killer Oaxacan food) than out on the town crowing about his own successes –and is always on the lookout for another food opportunity.
Cook. Businessman. Incubator for others. Husband. Dad of teenage boys (parents in town, take note; in a couple years, your daughters could do a whole hell of a lot worse than to fall in with this food-loving crowd. Just saying.)
So next time you feel the need for a great sandwich or hand-crafted, deeply satisfying bowl of pasta (and you’re not ready to drop major bank), head to Lardo or Grassa.
Your skinny jeans won’t thank you, but your wallet and belly will.
(Speaking of thank yous, a big one to the prodigiously talented Alan Weiner for letting me use many of his pictures here –I’m in awe of your talent. And Rick, thanks for your time and the all the happy food memories you’ve provided over the last six years. I’m holding my breath until you open up a place in my ‘hood).