By Nancy Tannler
3520 SE Powell Blvd.
Sunday – Thursday 4 pm to 9 pm
Friday – Saturday 4 pm To 10 pm
The story of the DeNicola’s and their authentic Italian restaurant is the tale of the rise of the American immigrant.
Donata DeNicola-Barrett spoke with The Southeast Examiner about her parents, the restaurant they started at this location in 1978, the great recipes still in use today and some of the history of their travels from Italy to Portland.
Rosa and Giovanni De Nicola immigrated to the United Stated during World War II. They were both from Pietragalla, Italy but didn’t formally meet until after they emigrated to this country. They were married in New York by a justice of the peace and asked their cab driver to serve as one of their witnesses. The couple migrated to Toronto where they both had lots of family who were already established there. They stayed here for awhile, but after their three children were born, decided they wanted something different for their kids.
Giovanni was in construction and followed the dam work. Their first stop was Flagstaff, Arizona where he helped build the Hoover Dam. Their dad always teased the kids telling them he got them from the Indians of the southwest because of their olive complexions and dark hair and eyes. From there they moved to Wasco, Oregon to help with the John Day Dam.
“My dad always worked two jobs so we would have everything we needed,” Donata said. Life was challenging for her family because they were “foreign” and were all still learning the English language.
The oldest daughter and as a child able to pick up the English language quickly, DeNicola became the interpreter, bookkeeper, letter writer and go-to person of the family. She had to grow up fast in order to look out for the interests of her family.
First generation immigrants weren’t that common in the sixties and the family was aware of how different they were in the small community of Wasco, especially the kids, so when her father got a job in Portland, she says, “It was the best thing that could have happened to us.”
In Portland, Rosa started cooking for the Monte Carlo, one of two Italian restaurants that occupied the “Goat Blocks” on SE Belmont St. The other was the Tony Lido. If you wanted authentic Italian food back in the day, these were the places to go. Eventually, her parents went into a partnership with two other couples and opened Giovanni’s in Beaverton, still in operation today, and eventually broke off to found De Nicola’s.
“When we first opened, it was terrifying because no one knew who we were but once word got out, we became crazy busy,” DeNicola said. To make this happen, her parents actually slept at the restaurant to get the cooking, cleaning, shopping and serving done. The kids were part of the process too; working after school and weekends as waitresses, bus-help and bookkeeper.
At one time there were five DeNicola’s restaurants. Donata runs the original one on Powell Blvd. where her brother and sons work too. Rosa and Giovanni have long since passed away. Most recently her husband and business partner John Barrett too. “I’ve had to learn all the aspects of the business in the last four years, but now it is operating like a smooth-running train,” DeNicola said.
The place is as charming and homey as it has always been, with updated additions that keep a traditional eating establishment contemporary. The best part is the delicious food.
“We serve southern Italian comfort food, the original Mediterranean diet,” she said. Starting with the spaghetti and meatball, ravioli, eggplant parmesan, chicken cacciatore, pizza, lasagna, seafood, vegetables, salads etc and it’s all on their menu. There are many vegetarian dishes and the marinara sauce is made without meat.
“We offer gluten-free pasta and pizza and when I return from visiting my family in the next month, we will begin working on recipes to make many more menu items gluten-free,” DeNicola said.
A welcoming family style restaurant, there’s plenty of parking at DeNicola’s and an easy turn lane for exiting and entering Powell Blvd. They have space for larger events and offer take out.
The menu is available online at: denicolasitaliandining.com