Solo Italiano, Portland’s newest Italian restaurant is the real deal.
Is it all about the basil?
Solo Italiano chef Paolo Laboa’s name has become synonymous with pesto ever since he and his sous-chef, Danny Bowien, won the World Pesto Championship in 2008. They took Laboa’s mother’s recipe to Genoa for the competition and brought their first-place win back to San Francisco, where they worked at the time. Now mandilli di seta al vero pesto Genovese is the most popular dish at Solo Italiano: silky “handkerchief ” pasta with Laboa’s ethereal blend of sweet Genovese basil, Mediterranean pine nuts, Pecorino Sardo, Parmigiano-Reggiano, garlic, and olive oil from Liguria. Its bright green color and herbaceous aroma hint at the complex flavor, making it a must-try. But Laboa’s talent extends far beyond this signature dish.
The chef arrived in town late last spring, when restaurant owner Angelo Ciocca was looking to establish an authentic Italian eatery in the expansive Old Port space most recently occupied by Ebb and Flow. A veteran of restaurant kitchens in California and Massachusetts, Laboa is impressed with the quality of food here, and has quickly established relationships with local farmers. He and his wife, Mercedes, who works as the day manager, have given the big space overlooking Commercial Street a makeover. They brought in more color and light, with bright artwork and freshly painted surfaces. The back room now serves as the main dining area, with an open kitchen for crudo, the Italian preparation of raw fish. In the front room, they’ve created an open bread and pasta station, where I watch Frank Lehman coaxing dough through a pasta maker for tonight’s dinner. He makes several types daily, including the tagliatelle that will later be covered in meaty Bolognese sauce.
Seasonal produce is at the heart of the menu, which is printed daily to reflect the ever-changing available options. “I help the ingredients speak for themselves ,” says Laboa. As the cold weather starts to arrive , he is relying more on root vegetables and mushrooms, along with hearty proteins, like rabbit, capon, and boar. He’s excited about truffle season, which extends from late fall through the winter. A truffle-hunting friend from Alba, in the Piedmont region of Italy, will visit bearing several pounds of the pricy fungus. Laboa has big plans for the tartufi, from mixing the earthy black ones with melted butter for pasta to using the aromatic white truffles to infuse pastry cream for an unusual dessert.
Portland’s Old Port has much in common with Genoa’s, making the chef feel right at home. Every day, Laboa and crudo chef Jordan Rubin go in search of the freshest fish on the waterfront, some of which Rubin will use in his wildly creative crudo dishes. One plate features thinly sliced Atlantic fluke with apple, lemon oil, and house-made crème fraîche; another pairs bluefin tuna with rutabaga, matsutake mushrooms, and white truffle oil . The offerings change with availability, but each plate is a visual and textural work of art, combining the precision of a sushi master with the sunny flavors of the Mediterranean coastline.
Having just returned from a trip to Italy, where I enjoyed a daily spritz, my new favorite word is aperitivo. Enjoying aperitivi is a way of life in Italy, Laboa tells me, a stress-free time after work but before dinner. It sounds suspiciously like happy hour, but so much more refined when he describes it. Solo Italiano has recently instituted a weekday Aperitivo Hour at its big, curved bar, featuring special cocktails designed to prepare the palate for dinner. The aperitivi are mainly low-alcohol, employing amaros, such as Campari and Aperol. Tell bartender Teddy Thanas what you like, and he’ll make a suggestion. He mixes up a drink with the cheeky name schiacciapalle (ball-buster) for me—a light concoction of Carpano Bianco vermouth, Tempus Fugit Gran Classico (an aromatic, bitter liqueur), prosecco, honey, and orange. While no one would mistake Commercial Street for the Grand Canal, I am transported back to Venice with the first sip. The wine list is one hundred-percent Italian, covering regions from northern Piedmont to southern Puglia and Si c i l y. “They’re mostly from small vineyards,” says Mercedes Laboa, “so when we run out, we’ll offer something new.”
Paolo Laboa takes a seat beside me, and as we talk more about his food there is much gesturing with his hands. He kisses two fingers into the air to emphasize so much deliciousness. It’s a perfectly Italian gesture, passionate and expressive . The chef is the embodiment of not just Italian cuisine, but the whole Italian dining experience. “When you go to the table,” he says, “be relaxed and you’ll enjoy it more. Listen to the bartenders and servers. Be open and upgrade yourself to new flavors.” Then, making the switch to Italian, Laboa tells me, “Piano, piano, si va lontano.” Slowly, slowly, one goes far. A relaxed meal at Solo Italiano will take you a long way, indeed.
100 Commercial Street | Portland | 207.780.0227