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Chef Cathy Whims’ Food Will Transport You

By Linda Knittel

From where I’m sitting at Nostrana’s rustic kitchen bar, I can see one of the cooks pull my margherita pizza out of the wood-fired oven. It looks nearly identical to the “mind-blowing” pizza I had when traveling through southern Italy in my twenties. Same perfect crust. Same ruby-red tomatoes. But there’s no way it can be as good, right?

Creating dishes that rival even the best regional Italian food is what Cathy Whims deems as personal success. The six-time James Beard nominee’s commitment to simple, authentic fare is what fuels her three successful restaurants, and is why she is one of the most revered chefs in Portland, Oregon, a city whose food scene compares with that of the most sophisticated cities in the world.

Creating dishes that rival even the best

regional Italian food is what Cathy Whims

deems as personal success.

Whims’ first foray in the kitchen was not her idea. “My mother was an amazing cook,” she says, “but when I decided to become a vegetarian in high school, she refused to make a separate dish for me, so I had to start cooking my own dinners.” A few years later during college, Whims used what she had learned to make money as both a private chef and a baker in a natural foods restaurant.

Maybe it was her growing interest in food or her waning interest in Latin classes, but either way, Whims decided college didn’t feel right, so she made her way out west. After a brief stint in San Francisco, she flew up to Portland and was hired right off the plane at a sandwich, salad and beer joint called the Produce Row Café. Over the next six years she became part of the fabric of the place, making food, friends and connections that would eventually lead her to the next phase of her career.

“One day I got a call from the owner of Genoa asking me to interview,” says Whims, who describes the gig as her “dream job.” From 1971–2014 the fine-dining Italian restaurant was a pillar of the Portland restaurant scene, and its go-to celebrity and special event spot. Whims started as a pasta cook, but eventually bought the place with a few other employees. It was there that she was introduced to using high-end extra virgin olive oil to cook with and the freshest ingredients she had ever seen. “I had never used quality produce like that. The restaurant had relationships with all the local farmers and ranchers. We even served the first fresh, Portland-grown porcini mushrooms to Luciano Pavarotti himself.”

It was during these first years at Genoa that Whims made her maiden trip to Italy. There she discovered that the Italian way of eating was actually quite different than what she had been whipping up at the restaurant. “Until that trip I hadn’t really understood Italian food. It’s so simple yet so incredibly delicious. I had to relearn how to make it.”

Eventually Whims realized her fascination with and pull toward simpler, more ingredient-driven Italian fare was not congruent with the special occasion dishes served at Genoa, so she decided to sell her share in the business. “I had a vision of a restaurant I wanted to create: a place where we would follow the Italian model of knowing your growers, preserving regional dishes, and cooking pure, simple food. I wanted it to feel like you were going back in time.”

That vision came to fruition in Nostrana. For ten years the restaurant has featured Neapolitan-style pizzas, rustic pastas, hearty entrées, and a Caesar-inspired radicchio salad [LK1] that borders on an obsession for many Portlanders, including myself. There is an undeniable feeling of authenticity to the place, where stellar ingredients and a commitment to simplicity come together to create truly memorable meals.

The same is true at Whims’ other two Portland eateries—Oven and Shaker and Hamlet—where using locally sourced ingredients is a prime directive. However, there are some things that she insists cannot be matched domestically. “We import the most amazing Parmigiano-Reggiano, and lentils from Umbria that are beyond incredible.”

Perhaps even more impressive than Whims’ dedication to using the best ingredients is her commitment to creating dishes that have the ability to transport you to other times and places—my margherita being no exception. With each bite of its perfectly crispy crust, vine-ripened tomatoes, and tangy mozzarella I am reminded of that day in Naples, when it felt like I was tasting pizza for the first time. Of course nothing can compare to actually dining among locals after a day of taking in the city’s sights and smells, but this comes pretty darn close.

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View the recipe for Nostrana's Italian Salad