With all the heavy holiday feasting we are doing this time of year, it is always nice to take a little break and have a cozy, light Italian dinner prepared by talented chefs. If you are planning to be on the north shore, Del Porto is a fine choice for a quiet evening after a busy day of Christmas shopping. You will not find any meatballs or lasagna on the menu, but rather light Italian fare with a California twist, prepared with fresh local vegetables and herbs from the farmer’s market.
Two years ago this month, Del Porto expanded its quarters by moving down the street to 501 East Boston in Covington. This also allowed husband and wife team Torre and David Solazzo to expand the menu and bolster the staff.
There is still no trace of Creole Italian cooking anchored by red sauces; rather, you will find refreshing California-style Italian cuisine, with ingredients tied to the season. The chefs go to the farmer’s market each week to gather fresh produce, which they use to create contemporary Italian dishes that change weekly (they also occasionally appear at the farmer’s market as guest chefs doing cooking demonstrations).
David and Torre met several years ago while cooking at Tra Vigne Restaurant in Napa Valley, California (where they honed their skills on organic cooking and regional Italian fare). “We’ve worked together since the day we met,” Torre says.
Both in their 30s, she is originally from New Orleans and David is from Rochester, New York. He studied cooking at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and she studied at the Napa Valley Culinary School in San Francisco. They shared a dream of having a fine dining restaurant and landed in Covington while planning to move to Italy to open a restaurant. They spotted a store front on the north shore that was too charming to pass up, and Del Porto was born.
The Solazzos take their cue from the authentic cuisine of Italy, where the best regional cooking consists of dishes that enhance the flavor of the ingredients from which they are made, never swamping them with flamboyant side effects such as sauces and garnish. People sometimes comment on the lack of sauces in a true Italian meal, but in fact food is usually served in the juice in which it has cooked, this being its sauce. Separate sauces are used to dress plain foods such as pasta or polenta. Ultimately, using fresh ingredients tied to the seasons is the key.
The Solazzos achieve this with such dishes as pan-roasted gulf drum served with local spaghetti squash and local braised greens, and grilled center cut pork chops served with Napa cabbage with sweet onions and fruited mustard.
Pasta courses such as mushroom tagliatelle with Pecorino Romano and white truffle oil refreshingly transcend the Creole-Italian red sauce, “red sea” mode. One can make a meal of the antipasti selections alone. Ask for a martini Vero with a lemon twist or a grapefruit and basil mojito to start, then start ordering such antipasti as beef carpaccio with house made truffled crème fraiche or some grilled house made fennel pork sausage with pickled sweet peppers and onions. Or get a plate of cured Italian meats served with cheeses, grilled seasonal vegetables, and fruit with garlic crostini to nibble on while sipping your martini.
Salads are light and fresh, including the salad of mixed baby greens with shaved red onions, grated carrots, and red wine-garlic vinaigrette. Equally refreshing is the arugula salad with Pecorino Romano, creamy lemon, and oregano vinaigrette.
For the main course, if you are feeling like a tart touch of the Mediterranean during the holidays, sample the tomato braised chicken with kalamata olives. The pan-seared duck breast with a stew of celery root and a currant-pine nut relish represents the chefs’ creative style.
At the end of the meal, treat yourself to some Jacob Poli pear brandy or a very fine Warre’s Otima 10 year port while sampling any one of the wonderful desserts, including a warm rum cake with Satsuma, basil, and white chocolate, or any one of the sorbets, especially that one fashioned with lemon and thyme. Ice coffee fanatics like me can enjoy P.J.’s ice coffee in various flavors including French vanilla. The cappuccino here is also quite good, perfect for a cold winter evening. It will fortify you before wrapping all those presents and trimming the tree.