It's a shame this pillar of Portland's gourmet grocer scene only has two locations: scruffy, Bohemian Hawthorne Boulevard and the trendy City Market on NW 21st Avenue, especially when there are so many other grocers that keep missing the mark. Then again, staying small could be the reason why Pastaworks is still able strive for perfection in an age of corporate takeovers and cost-cutting compromises.

One shining example is their cheese counter, which they staff with real human beings who actually know something about cheese. Other upscale shops, including New Seasons Market and Zupan's, haven't committed to hiring any cheesemongers, opting instead to let customers fend for themselves until they flag down someone from another department. Cheese is delicate, expensive stuff, with the intimidating variety and subtle differences that one might find at a luxury car show, so it helps to have an expert walk you through the options and head off any potentially unpleasant surprises. As one would expect from a friendly cheese steward, the folks at Pastaworks will offer samples, recommend the perfect cheese to accompany a specific wine/entree/dessert, and, most importantly, sell you the exact amount you need. Were it not for their sincere enthusiasm and gentle encouragement, I'd never have even touched the more dubious lumps, especially the ones that smelled like a stinky foot or a city in the midst of a summer garbage strike, much less tasted their heady complexity and come back for more. These people are also quick to reveal any rare treasures that just arrived, as well as point out wedges and wheels that are at the peak of ripeness. Although there are other places in town with cheese that costs more than filet mignon, the smart money is spent at Pastaworks.

Given their name, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the fresh pasta made at the Hawthorne location is good enough to be resold in stores all over town. Spaghetti, tortellini, triangoli, and ravioli are just a few varieties made regularly, in addition to marinara, alfredo, and pesto sauces, among others. The butcher can help you pick out the right pancetta or prosciutto to go with it, and the wine steward will guide you through one of the best collection of Italian reds in town. For dessert, you can either shop through their offerings from Portland's best independent bakeries and patisseries, or cook something up from scratch with chocolate that may actually be too good to waste on your friends.

As a hub of Portland's slow food movement, the stores routinely host cooking classes and other culinary events, so it pays to get on their newsletter, or visit the website at www.pastaworks.com.

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