words JOHN GOLDEN  |  photography BENJAMIN CLAY

“I need a beautiful halibut,” the chef says over the phone to his Portland fishmonger at Nova Seafoods. “Oh, yes,” he continues, “the scallops were beautiful, piano, piano, but for tonight I need a 30-pound halibut… ”

“Piano” translates from Italian as softly, carefully. And it was the most repeated word I heard during several interviews with Owner-Chef Paolo Laboa to learn about his distinctively Genovese cuisine served at Solo Italiano in downtown Portland.

Listening to Laboa talk about cooking (cucina) in his honeyed, heavily accented Italian voice makes you want to be a better cook.

“It must be fresh and local,” he tells me. “And it has to be the best of its kind because it will have the most flavor.”

Indeed, just about every ingredient is locally sourced, including the basil for his Genovese pesto, which he gets year-round from Olivia’s Garden. In fact, Laboa thinks Olivia’s basil is as good as any you’d get in the Mediterranean. He points out that it’s hydroponically grown and therefore consistently good.

“Most Americans grow their basil until the leaves are huge,” he says. “That’s not good. The flavor is harsh.”

He’s equally particular about the quality of the produce he uses in his kitchen. He relies on Stonecipher Farm (a favorite source for many Portland chefs), The Farm Stand in South Portland, Dandelion Spring Farm and various other vendors that he visits at area farmers’ markets. He also loves Maine’s winter root vegetables like rutabagas.

“So beautiful, earthy like truffles,” he says. “I use them for purée for octopus, in ravioli, soups…”

For cheese and specialty items he relies on Micucci’s, the Portland Italian specialty shop, because the store imports high-quality products direct from Italy.

“Micucci’s olive oils from Italy are very good,” he says. Laboa prefers Ligurian olive oil, such as Raineri, which is rich and buttery and doesn’t overpower the ingredients.

Laboa points out that extra-virgin olive oil from Tuscany or other regions isn’t always the best choice because it can be too intense; what’s known as pure olive oil is often a better choice, depending on what you’re cooking. Termed plain or blended oil, it’s not extra-virgin, but it should be produced and bottled in Italy or other Mediterranean countries, he says.

As such a perfectionist for authenticity, I wonder how Laboa makes a simple tomato sauce.

“Peel your tomatoes, scoop out the fillets with seeds and put into a heavy pot with a slice of garlic, basil, olive oil and salt. Cook it very slowly [low heat], piano, piano, covered for at least three hours, piano, piano.”

It sounded so wonderful—and easy—that I made it myself later that day from a bowlful of late-summer tomatoes I had on the counter. I did exactly as he instructed, and it was a sauce with tremendous texture and as seriously flavorful as a confit.

I’ve been to Solo Italiano many times for dinner, each meal more revelatory than the last. His crudos are world class, such as a tuna tartare filling a hollowed-out roasted marrow bone. It’s the kind of dish you go to a restaurant to experience because you’re not apt to make it in your home kitchen.

Pastas are another hallmark on the menu—all are hand rolled. At one dinner I marveled over a pasta dish that was a twist on carbonara: Tajarin alla Carbonara di Mare—an egg-yolk pasta with shrimp, guanciale, pepper and leeks—majestically topped with Maine sea urchin emulsion and grated Pecorino. The emulsion was as thick as a silken custard and the overall taste bloomed with a blizzard of flavors that were so fragrant and lush: umami personified.

When the restaurant first came under his regime, Laboa partnered with Nova Seafoods’ Angelo Ciocca as co-owner until he bought out Ciocca this past fall. He still relies on Nova as well as other seafood purveyors in Portland.

Laboa’s most notable claim to fame is his pesto, for which he won the World Pesto Championship in Genoa in 2008. How that came about is a chef’s saga. When he was the executive chef at Farina, the highly regarded San Francisco restaurant, his sous chef was Danny Bowien, who became founder of the renowned Mission Chinese in San Francisco and New York.

“Every day at 5pm Danny and I made pesto. I taught him my mother’s recipe, which she got from her mother. Everything in Italy is 200 years old,” he says, laughing. They both went to Genoa for the competition and won.

Here is Laboa’s famous pesto recipe, told to me and edited for clarity.

“Take a big handful [that’s 2 hands cupped together, or about 6 cups] of basil leaves, wet with water [soak for about 5 minutes]; set aside. When ready to use shake off water gently, piano, piano.

“Take a small handful [about ⅓ cup] of pine nuts and put in blender. They must be Mediterranean; they’re too bitter from China or elsewhere. Add a slice of garlic [about half of a small garlic clove]. Add the oil [use Ligurian or good-quality plain olive oil].

“Pulse in blender [do not use a food processor, too rough] until you have a white, creamy paste. Pulse in the salt, piano, piano.

“Add the basil [in 4 batches], shaking water off gently, pulsing until you have an emerald green paste.

“Add ⅓ cup each grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Toscano. Pulse, piano, piano.”

In all my visits to the restaurant I never tried his pesto until recently. Served over hand-rolled pasta it was exceedingly creamy, contrasting the popular method of having the nuts remain crunchy and excessively flavored with garlic. You could easily kiss someone after eating his pesto without fear of offending.

At the end of our interview a staff member brought out something that looked like an old driftwood log. But Laboa was very excited about it.

“This is stoccafisso,” he says.

Stockfish, as it’s also known, is a very old, truly artisanal ingredient that hails from Norway and is a popular dish in Mediterranean countries. It’s dried, fermented fish, usually cod. Norway’s climate is perfect for the process. It can’t be too cold, barely above freezing, with little rain.

It’s available throughout the winter and Laboa makes it into an earthy stew. It’s a highly prized, if acquired, taste; a specialty dish that seems right at home at Solo Italiano.

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