Three months ago, if you had asked me to predict at which restaurant I would eat jaw-achingly sweet blackberries – plump as a toddler’s thumb and picked that morning by our server as she walked through a South Portland park – I would never have guessed Solo Italiano. Vinland, sure. Maybe even Fore Street or Local Sprouts Café, but not a glass-and-exposed-brick Commercial Street venture, right in the swirling center of Portland’s tourist vortex.

If you’ve been to the Old Port recently, you might recognize the location as the high-profile corner spot occupied until March by owner Angelo Ciocca’s previous restaurant, Ebb & Flow, which was open for just over a year and didn’t develop a clear identity. Now, with a restyled interior that tempers all the metal and glass with purples and deep blues, it feels like a space that has come to celebrate its proximity to the water.

That’s just as true of the Ligurian menu that Genova-born Paolo Laboa, Solo Italiano’s executive chef and co-owner, has developed. Each section features seafood, from antipasti to secondi, not to mention an entire list of raw fish dishes, prepared in the restaurant’s open crudo kitchen. Even the thin and cheesy, Recco-style focaccia options include seafood.

“People in Maine really get fish,” Laboa said. “They’re used to being surrounded by beautiful seafood, and they want to eat it. I’m Genovese, I understand that. It’s a lot like where I come from, with a mountain in the back, then just the city, and then the sea.”

No surprise then that Laboa (along with his crudo chef, Jordan Rubin) is talented at using ingredients from the ocean. You can taste it in dishes like the Italian-Spanish carpaccio “gazpacho” ($14), an island of thinly sliced, buttery yellowtail surrounded by a lagoon of radiant yellow puree made from cucumber, tomato, bread, basil and garlic. Or the tender braised octopus ($18) with saffron-kissed, slow-cooked new potatoes, bottarga and chili flakes, which was a terrific take on a Mediterranean classic, despite needing perhaps another minute on the grill.

While seafood is a strength at Solo Italiano, it is by no means the restaurant’s specialty. Laboa, who previously helmed Farina in San Francisco, was the winner of the World Pesto Championship in 2008, and he makes sure to include his prize-winning sauce in several places, such as in the silk handkerchief (mandilli di seta) pasta ($22), where his classic basil pesto pops up as the star of the show. Indeed, it is not uncommon for Laboa’s pestos to be the best component of a dish, as with his dandelion version, served alongside a blended romesco-like tomato sauce underneath a too-generously salted fillet of halibut ($36). So too, in his take on orecchiette and sausage ($22), where Laboa takes a theoretical approach to pesto by pureeing not herbs, but blanched Stonecipher Farm broccolini stems and olive oil in order to distribute a vibrant green freshness through the dish. It’s a pity that the underseasoned housemade sausage did not add much to the pasta, because the components of this dish that did work were phenomenal.


Another place where Laboa’s pesto genius played out to note-perfect effect was in his creative interpretation of a tomato and basil salad, reinvented as a dessert. His Caprese gelatos ($9) comprised one dairy-free scoop of fruity, fragrant tomato sorbetto and one full-fat, raw milk-based scoop of grassy, aromatic basil gelato, united not by mozzarella but by fresh whipped cream and a single drop of balsamic vinegar. It reminded me of school vacations when I would eat ripe, late-summer tomatoes off the vine while my father mowed the lawn nearby. Absolutely sublime.

There was something nostalgic, too, about the papardelle with lamb ragu ($23). Described by the menu as “an inconceivable local heirloom tomato sauce,” the ragu was made with ground lamb shoulder, sage, rosemary and juniper, and served on a bed of precisely al dente egg pasta, infused with mint. At our table, we were split on this dish. We were all captivated by the elaborate interplay of herbs, and while some of us loved the homey, rustic presentation that called to mind a very grandmotherly way of cooking, some of us wanted to see a little more cheffy technique, especially in a plate of pasta that cost upwards of $20.

I’ll admit, I was torn myself, until I talked with Laboa later and asked him about his vision for the restaurant. Real Italian recipes, like his family’s pesto, are what he cares about most, and if that allows him a chance to show off, that’s fine. If not, he’s OK with that, too.

“We buy a lot of stuff from farms that is already beautiful,” he said. “I just don’t touch the food too much, don’t overdo it, don’t overdress it. Let the food speak and give the flavors some freedom.”

That restraint is key. It’s what makes Laboa the kind of chef who will serve you a cold beet salad with sharp Gorgonzola ($11) and decorate the plate with nothing but lemon zest. Or send out a wobbly, barely set panna cotta ($8) and unashamedly skip ornate garnishes to present it simply, with a dozen perfect South Portland blackberries foraged by his front-of-house staff. He told me, “Those blackberries are what we’re about. Simple food, but we try to pay attention to all the details. Small things, they make a big difference.” And despite a few minor hiccups, it is precisely those tiny, magical elements, not the lurid Commercial Street pageantry you might expect, that make Solo Italiano such a welcome surprise.

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. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Molly and Rich Evans of Portland enjoy a drink after their meal.

Molly and Rich Evans of Portland enjoy a drink after their meal. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

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