The big corner space on Commercial Street has seen many restaurants come and go over the past several years, but it’s never seen anything like Paolo Laboa. “Paolo is the real deal” is the refrain I hear from several people during my visit to Solo Italiano.
Laboa is from Genoa, on the Ligurian coast of Italy. As a child, he preferred spending time in the kitchen with his mother and nonna, rather than playing outside, where his father thought he should be. It was in this kitchen that Laboa first learned to make pesto, the dish he has become most famous for. When he presents us with a plate of silky pasta “handkerchiefs” swathed in the green sauce, the herbaceous aroma of basil greets us first. No single ingredient stands out as it might in a less refined rendition; rather it’s the blending of sweet Genovese basil (Laboa says local Olivia Garden’s basil is the most like it), Mediterranean pine nuts, Pecorino Sardo, Parmigiano-Reggiano, garlic, and olive oil from Liguria. Mixing the pesto with a bit of the starchy pasta cooking water emulsifies it into an exquisitely creamy sauce for the handmade pasta. It’s an ambrosial combination, and Laboa’s signature dish.
Laboa’s first job in the United States was in San Francisco, helping open the northern Italian restaurant Farina. There he trained a young Korean-American chef, Danny Bowien, to make his mama’s pesto. Bowien later won a James Beard award. “I teach him everything,” says Laboa, in Italian-accented English, “how to feel the food, balance. Let the ingredients speak for themselves.” In 2008, the pair went to back to Genoa and took first place in the Pesto World Championship. After brief stints in Massachusetts and Napa, Laboa has found his way to Portland, where restaurant owner Angelo Ciocca, was looking to establish an authentic Italian eatery in the expansive space in the Old Port. “When I see Portland for the first time, I feel at home,” says the chef. “It’s like Genoa, so it’s easy for me.” He and his family are loving it here. “This is one of the most amazing places in America,” Laboa adds. “The quality here is the same, or better, than Italy. And I have more contact with farmers here than I did in California.”
Every morning Laboa and crudo chef Jordan Rubin walk around the corner to Upstream Trucking, a seafood wholesaler on the wharf, to pick out the day’s fish. Some of it will be used for the creative, raw fish dishes prepared by Rubin. He makes each plate a work of art, cutting the seafood with precision and pairing it with innovative, seasonal ingredients. A plate of day boat sea scallop carpaccio is stunning, adrift on a thin layer of stracciatella cream and accented with Calabrian chili and chives. Another dish, composed of the tail and loin of raw Maine yellowtail, is served atop a refreshing Italian gazpacho with crunchy fried onions for contrast. Laboa and Rubin work collaboratively, mixing flavors for each dish of crudo. “The fish tells me how it wants to be prepared,” says Laboa. “I don’t impose my ego.”
The menu at Solo Italiano changes daily, but most of the traditional Ligurian dishes stay on all the time. Pasta dishes are uncomplicated in the best way, all made by hand using Italian 00 semolina flour. The orecchiette is cooked perfectly and sauced simply with broccoli, Italian sausage, and a spicy hit of chili flake. Pansotti alle noci is tortelli stuffed with ricotta, walnuts, and whatever greens and herbs are freshest at the moment, then served with walnut pesto. Focaccia di recco, an unleavened pizza-like bread, is rolled paper-thin and sandwiches mild stracchino cheese. It’s crispy and bubbly on top and soft underneath, a simple thing, very well-executed. I can’t imagine anything better to nibble on with an Aperol Spritz, one of the apertivi cocktails offered at the big horseshoe-shaped bar. These low alcohol drinks are a lifestyle in Italy, with a slightly bitter taste “designed to prepare the palate for food enjoyed between work and the dinner hour,” bartender Teddy Thanas tells me. He’s also created a cocktail in the chef’s honor, called The Grand Laboa, featuring gin, Aperol, lemon, grapefruit, and, of course, basil.
“Paolo’s passion inspires us all to a higher standard,” says Thanas. ”He’s got a story you root for, and he’s instantly likeable.” I’d have to agree, especially when Laboa tells me, “I think just food. My brain, always in food.” Welcome to Portland, Paolo.
Solo Italiano | 100 Commercial St. | Portland | 207.780.0227 | soloitalianorestaurant.com