After first being announced last winter, Balvo has finally opened in Portland, in the old Coffee People location on NW 23rd. Kenny Giambalvo, formerly of Bluehour, has taken the helm of this newest venture by Bruce Carey and company, the same people running Saucebox and Bluehour. It opened to the public on Tuesday of this week.
The space is unlike anything else in Portland; definitely not Northwest, it feels rather Santa Monica/Melrose. It is made up of three levels, with the front door opening onto the mid-level lounge area. This section is spacious, lots of comfortable chairs and tables. The bar itself runs almost the length of the restaurant. Upstairs is a huge mezzanine that looks down over the rest of the space and the street outside. They spent a lot of money on this place, and it shows. The ceilings soar above the tables, giving a drama not found many places in Portland. Though there is lots of glass, a good amount of sound absorbing materials have been added keeping the noise to a very comfortable level. The lighting is excellent, I haven't had any problems reading the menu or seeing my food. Overall, it is a very comfortable space, however, the branding has been taken to heights only seen previously in large chains such as Cheesecake Factory. Personally, I think they have taken it too far, but maybe I'm just not cool enough.
Think of the old Union 76 logo; a big round orange ball. Instead of 76, replace the letters with one lowercase 'b', done in white. As you walk in the door, it is on the doormat. It is on the waiters uniforms, the windows, the menus, the plates, the coffee cups... it looks like someone got a free rubber stamp and a pad of orange ink for Christmas. Floating over the whole scene, is a huge orange ball. In case you can't get enough, display cases offer souvenirs to take home: T-Shirts, gift baskets, olive oil, hats, gift baskets, corkscrews... wow... maybe I am at the Cheesecake Factory after all! It all fits in very well with the commercial NW 23rd theme, but after a while I was rolling my eyes. You can see the logo at Balvo.com. Unfortunately, as of this writing the website doesn't work beyond the first page.
How's the food? I've had three meals and tasted around 15 dishes. With the exception of the desserts, I've yet to have a bad dish, but most have not risen beyond good. So far the desserts have been excellent!
The menu is broken into six sections: 7 Insalata, 7 Antipasti, 3 Soups, 7 Contorni, 17(!) Pasta, and 8 Secondi.
Insalata di "Balvo" with chicken, olives, fontina, egg, balsamic, and radicchio ($8.00)
Finocchio e rucola - fennel and arugula salad with balsamic vinegar, pine nuts, and grana ($6.00)
Calamari alla griglia - grilled squid with preserved eggplant and chili oil ($8.00)
Bacala Montecato - creamy salt cod with grilled polenta ($7.00)
Minestrone vegetable soup with borlotti beans and pastina ($6.00)
Rigatoni with nanna Giambalvo's sunday meat sauce ($15.00)
Pappardelle with duck ragu, orange zest, and sage ($15.00)
Ravioli filled with braised veal and porcini, with a thyme tomato sauce ($15.00)
Penne with black olives, anchovies, capers, tomatoes, and hot pepper ($12.00)
Scaloppine di vitello piccata - thinly pounded veal with prosciutto and lemon ($18.00)
The first time I went, everything seemed very salty to me, so I went back the next day with more friends that tend to like salt. We agreed that many of the dishes were seasoned. The Finocchio salad was so over salted it was hard to get down, but underneath, the ingredients very fresh and well prepared, a good interplay of textures from the tiny little pine nuts, creamy grana, and fennel. The "Balvo" is pretty much an Italian version of a chopped salad, with little bits of chicken, and all the other ingredients playing well off each other, but no real oomph that made me want to order it again.
The cooking of a few pasta dishes was a bit off - too al dente. However I would attribute this to opening week jitters. The pappardelle was perfectly cooked, the pasta achieving marvelous synergy with the duck, orange zest, and sage. This is truly a wonderful dish. If they could cut the salt a bit, I could have the rigatoni with Nanna's Sunday meat sauce, well... every Sunday. It is satisfying and warm, Italian comfort food.
Ill have a full overview on my site Monday. Most of the menu is posted there now.