David Levi doesn’t care how you pronounce the name of his new Portland trattoria, as long as you’re talking about it. For the record, he chose the name to honor his grandmother, a flamboyant character who, along with her husband, fled Milan to escape Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1938. Her name was Fanny (rhymes with “La KNEE”). “She was a brilliant woman, charming and elegant – and also a competitive runner who just happened to hang out with opera singers. I didn’t get to spend many years with her, but I grew up with the recipes she passed on to my parents,” he said.

Levi is also the chef/owner of nearby Vinland, a strictly conceived, philosophy-driven fine dining restaurant that sources 100 percent of its ingredients, from sirloin to salt, from the local area. Trattoria Fanny, on the other hand is all about traditional, casual Italian cooking: “It’s not food as art, or food as idea. It’s food as food, and food as culture,” as Levi describes it. “A trattoria is supposed to be a place with no pretension, no frills, like an Italian version of a diner.”

That folksy perspective informs the uncomplicated interior, sketched out in off-white walls and dark wood that Levi salvaged from his family’s 18th century farmhouse in upstate New York. His is an intelligent species of simplicity, though, one achieved through a little well-deployed sleight of hand. Take the induction cooktop-powered open kitchen – with no whoosh and rumble from gas burners, it is so quiet that it almost fades into the rough-hewn woodwork. Or the long, 16-seat, lacquered communal table, fitted with chairs on one side and bar stools on the other. You might never notice it, but that asymmetry cunningly erases the awkward step-down that runs along the equator of the room.

Similarly, Roman Executive Chef Siddharta “Sid” Rumma sneaks a few of his own quiet flourishes onto the menu, transforming a humdrum Northern Italian rice salad ($8) into a quintessential warm-weather dish, full of golden raisins, red peppers, capers and torn shreds of mint. It’s also visually arresting – a perfect circle of pignoli-topped Black Venus rice (Riso Nero Venere) on a stark white dish – something you might be served if Robert Longo were working the pass.

There is also a subtle artistry in Rumma’s contorno (side dish) of garlicky, wine-sautéed oyster mushrooms ($6), plated diagonally into an organic, curving form that resembles clustered flower buds on a wilting stem. It is, at once, somehow both modest and gorgeous.

Not all of the menu’s embellishments are visual, though. Take the addition of toasty brown butter to the roasted cauliflower with capers, anchovies and thyme ($7). It lends a magnificent, saturated savory intensity to a plate that is, technically, just a side dish. If I were a pescetarian, I would order two (OK, maybe three) servings of this and a glass of wine, like the fruity, delicately fizzy Santa Giustina Bonarda red ($8), and consider myself very lucky.

Actually, eating that way isn’t too far off the mark from what Rumma and Levi have in mind for visitors to Trattoria Fanny. Rather than follow the typical American template of creating composite main dishes made up of some kind of protein and a few small accompaniments, entrées are generally served plain. If you want side dishes, you order a few contorni. Staff do sometimes forget to alert guests to this rather important detail, as happened to a woman at the next table to me. When her lonely-looking monkfish with beurre blanc ($19) arrived, she glanced down at her plate, then back up to her grandson and asked, “Did I do something to make them angry?”

That said, there are one or two entrées that include their own extras, like octopus ($18), served with rough, slightly undercooked potatoes. The kitchen braises the Spanish octopus in a regionally appropriate “kind of ‘sangria liquid’ we make with water, red wine, carrot, cinnamon and pear,” Rumma said. Unfortunately, after it is seared to order, some parts of the octopus end up dried out, some mushy and yet others rubbery.

On a recent visit, I also encountered occasional seasoning problems. An appetizer of brown-skinned polenta wedges ($7) and baccala mantecato (a whipped mousse of salt-cured cod) was, by some miracle of overzealous soaking, bland and undersalted. On the other hand, guanciale-striped spaghetti alla carbonara ($13), despite the clever tweak of using a single, perfectly proportioned local duck egg in place of two chicken egg yolks, was salty in the extreme.

Riso nero salad. Staff photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

It’s hard to imagine that those dishes came out of the same kitchen that prepares a world-class rigatoni ($13) with a slow-braised oxtail tomato sauce underscored by the racy astringency of cocoa powder. “You get it especially in central and southern Italy. It gives something bitter to go against the freshness and sweetness of tomatoes in the sauce,” Rumma explained.

And while there’s nothing quite so complex about the dessert menu, it does feature an excellent torta della nonna ($6), a short, sweetcrust pastry shell filled with a lemon-infused pastry cream, punctuated across its surface with apostrophes of toasted pine nuts. Fittingly for a restaurant that so actively explores Levi’s relationship to his family’s Italian roots, the dessert’s name means “grandmother cake,” and as Rumma says, “It’s the most typical sort of dessert you get for a Sunday lunch with grandma. Everyone does it differently, but it is always simple.” Fanny – no matter how you pronounce her name – would very likely approve.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME