White beans spilled across the plate like rubble from a rockslide. The arrangement looked almost casual. A small detail, but it reflected the sense of ease that pervades the food, the service and the atmosphere at Ristorante del Porto in Covington. I suspect, though, that nothing here is left to chance. Even something as minor as the plating of white beans under a fillet of salmon is carefully considered and executed. Ristorante del Porto embodies the Italian ideal of sprezzatura -- the art of making effort look effortless.
The hard work of the husband-and-wife team of David Solazzo and Torre Bagalman can make customers believe that everything the staff and kitchen do is unplanned and second nature. A meal at Ristorante del Porto follows an easy, measured pace. Solazzo and Bagalman cook rustic Italian food; they find their inspiration in the unadorned cuisines of Tuscany and southern Italy. No one course upstages another. Meals at Ristorante del Porto, no matter what particular items are ordered, have the well-balanced rhythm of a chef's tasting menu.
The appetizers, or antipasti, never killed my appetite for the courses that followed. A puree of white beans and artichokes is like a lighter, creamier version of hummus with a bite of garlic. My table asked for a second basket of housemade focaccia to mop the plate clean. On another appetizer, alternating slices of roasted beets and fresh mozzarella are fanned across a plate. The tangy marinated beets combine well with the fullness of the cheese and the bright herbaceous notes from the curls of fresh basil sprinkled on top. The best appetizer is the antipasti platter, which goes far beyond the typical assortment of meat, cheese and olives. The small antipasti plate, large enough for two people to share, also includes sweet pickled onions, soothing grilled zucchini and squash served cold, a chunky eggplant dip and a scattering of blackberries.
You can end dinner at Ristorante del Porto with a full order of pasta and leave perfectly satisfied. The cavatelli, plump rounds of pasta simply tossed with tomatoes and a generous handful of herbs, transcends basic comfort food when Ristorante del Porto tops it with rich, housemade ricotta. I recommend, though, a small half-portion of pasta before a final course. The tender gnocchi with butter-poached shrimp offers a wonderful intermezzo for a meal. The shrimp are cooked in the melted butter, which gives the butter the delicate taste of shrimp stock. The rich butter contrasts nicely with the olive oil that predominates most of the menu.
Ristorante del Porto shows the same care and restraint with its entrees as it does with the earlier courses. Tender, braised short ribs are served atop creamy Israeli pearl couscous, which has the velvety texture of risotto without risotto's often overwhelming richness. A splash of salsa verde brightens grilled amberjack and the fingerling potatoes on the side are roasted until almost as sweet as candy. The grilled chicken has an unfamiliar aroma -- slightly musky with a hint of grapes. It is a combination of rosemary, lavender and saba, a sweet reduction of grape must. The first time that I ordered the chicken, I was compelled to lean toward my plate and breath deeply as if I were discovering the bouquet of a new wine.
The occasional shortcomings at Ristorante del Porto are reminders that cooking ostensibly simple dishes is a high-wire act. Without layers of flavors or lush coats of buttery sauces, slight imperfections can stand out. Sometimes fish was slightly overcooked. The two times that I tried the grilled chicken, the heady aroma and taste of the skin made me regret that the meat wasn't more moist. These failings never derailed an entire meal. The risks of Ristorante del Porto's approach are well worth the rewards of intense, clean flavors.
The restaurant often fills with young people on dates, families with children in tow and groups of older couples. The volume may rise, but the room is always comforting and warm. Look closely, and you can see that the walls are made of cinder blocks. The decorations and a coat of mottled yellow paint, however, create a convincing illusion of a country trattoria.
At the end of the meal, the server reads the dessert selection. There are no bubbling chocolate monstrosities that obliterate the memory of every taste that came before. A simple panna cotta. A cup of vanilla ice cream soaked with espresso. Or a near-perfect tiramisu with moist layers of mascarpone cheese and a hint of lemon. Each dessert makes an excellent conclusion to a meal, continuing the balance that runs through every course at Ristorante del Porto. The food, the service and the atmosphere are both relaxed and poised in equal measures. I rarely encounter a restaurant with this combination of qualities, which makes me realize how difficult it is to achieve.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The husband-and-wife team of Torre Bagalman and David Solazzo makes customers believe that everything at RISTORANTE DEL PORTO is unplanned and second nature in its ease.