Solo Italiano – Northern Italy by the Sea

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Solo Italiano is the new restaurant at 100 Commercial St. Though the location never seems to hold a business for very long, it is still leased by the same individual who had it for the previous eatery. With a new chef and new fare – that of Northern Italy – I thought it might be an interesting addition to the Portland food scene. We made reservations for the day after it opened with the understanding that everything might not be perfect quite yet. That didn’t matter to me; I just wanted to catch a peek at what was in store for future visitors.

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I noted in my initial view of the restaurant that it hadn’t changed much. The layout was essentially the same. I couldn’t recall every detail from the last time I was there, so I’m sure there were some differences, but the overall flow and ambiance was near that of what I remembered. Although there were a couple parties in front of us for seating, we were taken to our table pretty quickly. We were guided to the far end of the room which is the same area I’ve sat in every time I’ve been to that location in the past 15 years.

With food, wine, and cocktail menus laid out in front of us, we were poured what I’m certain are the largest glasses of water offered in Portland. No one would go thirsty that night as a single pour was nearly the volume of a small manmade pond. As I looked for an additional drink to quench my thirst, I immediately happened upon one that caught my eye for its strange ingredient combo – the Melisandre – vodka, straga, lemon, marjoram, red pepper syrup.  I didn’t know what to expect from it other than something different from what I normally drink, so it seemed like a winner. My wife went with the Elena Walch Chardonnay.

Turning to the food menu, it appeared the titles and food names were in Italian; at least I assumed so because I couldn’t read them. Fortunately, the descriptions were in English, so I focused on those. As I dug deep into the choices, I didn’t see too many starter types that piqued my interest. However, one of the salads did. My wife also liked the look of that one, so we agreed to share. We continued to ponder our options for entrees and soon our drinks came out. By then we were ready to order. We started with the salad – Misticanza di Campa con Pecorino – mixed farm salad greens and chicories, shaved pecorino, dressed with evoo, rosemary, and balsamic vinegar. She went with the Pansotti alle Noci – tortellini filled with ricotta, walnuts, spinach, chard, kale, and borage served with walnut pesto – and I ordered the Orata alla Ligure e Zucchini – whole dorade royale cooked in parchment paper, zucchini, tomato, parsley, white wine, evoo, and taggiasche olive. Though I had never ordered an entire fish as it sounded like a lot of work, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to get a little outside of my comfort zone.

Food orders on the way to the kitchen, it was time to hit the punch bowl. The orange liquid had an unusual smell, but I was excited to try it anyway. I took a little nip and the first thing that hit me was tomato. Tomato? It even surprised me. The mixers had a bit of acidic tomato-y notes, primarily from the orange flavored straga and the red pepper syrup melding together, I surmised. Still, I sort of liked the new age Frankenstein’s monster of a concoction I was downing and I was able to separate the flavors in my mouth after my initial impression. Unfortunately, my wife wasn’t sold on her wine and felt it had a different body than most chardonnays she was used to, perhaps because it wasn’t aged in wood as chards often are.

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Our salad came out and each of us was presented with our own plate. We looked at each other hoping that they were halfs because we had ordered only one to share and they were quite small if each were full size. Before we could try it, we also received some pieces of foccacia and rustic bread. I pushed the bread aside momentarily and started in on the rabbit food. I took an oversized bite and immediately loved it. Sure it was fresh, but the simplistic, light vinegar dressing with a perfect touch of herb was just enough to enhance the salad without overwhelming it. That wasn’t all it offered as the pecorino added even more great flavor, but again, didn’t distract from any other part of the luscious leaf layout.

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Salad kept my left hand occupied while my right interspersed bread bites in between chomping on the gorgeous greenery. It was an excellent mixture to start the meal. As we finished with those and relaxed before our main courses came out, we listened to the alt rock playing throughout the restaurant – an unlikely choice of music for an Italian joint. We bobbed our heads to the rhythm of the tunes and looked forward to what was in store for us in the coming minutes.

When our food arrived, I did indeed have an entire fish wrapped in parchment paper staring at me out of its left eye. I had been warned ahead of time that I should expect lots of bones and would have to eat around them. I plunged my fork into the fish just below the head and procured a meaty mass of flesh. As soon as I bit down, I felt them bones and had to pluck a few out of my mouth. Once I did that I was able to enjoy the taste of the soundly sleeping swimmer. As with the salad previously, the white fish was not overly complex, but very tasty as it truly took on the flavors of the white wine and olive oil. Certainly, of all categories of food, seafood needs the least manipulation to produce excellent flavor and this fish was no exception with solid, but somewhat subtle qualities. The accompanying vegetables also benefited from the white wine and olive oil flavorizing.

As my wife dug into her tortellini, she expressed disappointment, not with the taste, but with the quantity as there were only five on her plate and no sides of any sort. We both continued pressing on however, and I eventually got to the point where I was able to mostly disconnect the meat of my fish from its bones. Mouthfuls of fish and the occasional veggie kept me occupied for a while after Mrs. Portlaneater had finished her pasta pieces.

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Once our mains were done, my wife was still hungry, so we were sold on dessert before it was even offered to us. When it did come time to pick, we decided on the cannoli. I was excited for the little rolls of sweet dairy joy as it had been quite a while since I last ate some. We were presented with two of the handsome little fellows with filling bursting out of them, a chocolate zigzag, and some cherry juice/sauce on top. I pulled one my way and my wife took on the other as we both dug in at the same time. They were excellent examples of the sweet thang with a hearty, rich flavor and a great addition of the fruity cherry glaze on top. We ate those without delay and were ready to head out.

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The end of the meal brought a post-tip tab of about $110. The food was quite good and the salad ended up being a single serving as we had expected and hoped. The splitting of it was good customer service and overall, the service was pretty solid for a restaurant that was on its second day. The only issues with Solo were the main courses. While we had no complaints about the taste, my wife’s dish was $18 for only five tortellini and nothing else. It needed more. My dish, at $26, was more reasonable, but in retrospect, I think the addition of some parslied potatoes or a small pile of linguine or angel hair pasta would have been nice even if it added an extra buck. Check out Solo Italiano and let me know what you think. Their flavors are on point and made us happy, but maybe they could add a little to their plates and make future customers even happier.

Stay hungry.

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