The first person you will likely meet at Burrasca is chef Paolo Calamai. Looking like a friendly version of the assassin in The Professional, Calamai strolls through his intimate, airy Tuscan-style trattoria greeting new arrivals, filling the occasional wine glass, stepping into the line of his busy open kitchen, and surveying the spinach-ricotta gnudi or herb-crusted pork loin that come out to the floor.
Burrasca has no gimmick. Calamai is a native Florentine, and this space is a true Tuscan restaurant of simple spice and humble presentation, except on Southeast Clinton Street. The booze is Italian, and the restaurant observes the European tradition of good, affordable table wine, with $20 bottles of Il Bastardo that Calamai knows from home. But one could also ask for a fine Negroni ($9) or a true rarity: a genuinely good Italian beer, a downright creamy Menabrea pale lager served in a wine-sized bottle for $11.
And just a month after moving into the former Block's space, Burrasca already feels deeply ensconced in its neighborhood—never mind that less than a year ago, Calamai was working solo 12 hours a day and serving his dishes out of a quaintly lattice-fenced food cart we named our favorite in the city in 2013.
By far the most famous dish from Burrasca's food-cart days is the calamari inzimino ($16), a fisherman's dish little known in these parts. Calamai's version is a heady mix of tender squid rings, spinach crumpled like seaweed, acidic DiNapoli tomato and herb that arrives looking like no other plate in Portland. It is a pungent stew of inky, amorphous blackness punctuated with slices of crostini, both alien and deeply addictive.
But my favorite plate at the restaurant was the most familiar—housemade tagliatelle in lovely beef ragu ($14). As at restaurants in Italy, Calamai doesn't make every random shape of pasta to suit variety-hungry Americans, but rather just tagliatelle and gnocchi. On multiple visits, the tagliatelle was consistently just on the right side of al dente, the lightly herbed tomato sauce beautifully balanced in its salt, acidity and sweetness. A similar mastery of tomato was evident in the pappa al pomodoro ($8), a tomato-basil soup with bread sopping up the broth's richness.
The sformato di piselli appetizer ($9) is another simple masterpiece. A savory custard, it comes out as a drum of sweet-pea-flavored heaven; the secret to the dish is its slow-cooked bechamel, which takes on uncharacteristic depth mixed with egg and Parmesan. I have never loved peas quite like this. The chicken liver pâté appetizer is likewise a marvel of fatty texture, although the pane toscano was a little overcrisped to showcase it.
Tucked at the the bottom of the menu are a group of small dishes that Americans would often eat as appetizers, but which a Tuscan restaurant serves with the entrees as sides. Don't miss the cipollini ($5)—soft, slow-simmered onions—garlic-sage cannellini ($4) and sauteed chard ($4), served with Tuscan bread ($2) or, especially, puffed fried crescentine rolls ($4).
But sometimes the simplicity goes a little far. A white-wine pork leg appetizer ($12) served on farro was underspiced and its texture a little soft. The white wine less accentuated the flavors of the pork than tamed them. The spinach-ricotta gnudi also placed too much faith in its ingredients, and was a little monotone in both texture and flavor. But such problems are rare, even with small touches like mesclun soaked under the perfectly medium-rare, juniper-accented steak ($20), or a side salad ($8) with capers, raisins and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Each meal should end with a frothy, rich cup of Illy espresso—yes, even in Portland, the coffee is Italian—and a polite Italian dessert, in our case a lovely zuccotto spongecake nestling chocolate in vanilla. When you leave, the last person you see will likely also be Calamai, as he thanks you for visiting. You should say the same.
Order this: Sformato di piselli ($9), inzimino ($16), tagliatelle ($14).
Best deal: A $20 bottle of table wine.
I'll pass: Pork leg appetizer ($12).
EAT: Burrasca, 2032 SE Clinton St., 236-7791, burrascapdx.com. 11:30 am-2:30 pm Tuesday-Sunday, 5-9 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9:30 pm Friday-Saturday.