Basilico represents the yearning of its Roman-born owners, the husband-and-wife team of Luca Viola and Sharon De Mayo, for the trattorie of their hometown's neighborhoods. These casual, family-run eateries offer cucina della casa to fiercely traditional Italians and food-savvy tourists alike.
Here you're likely to find a couple of old men camped at a strategic table near the bar, and an owner arguing about soccer while simultaneously cooking from a menu hasn't changed in several generations. But for the ever-present whine of motorini just outside and an equally ubiquitous cloud of cigarette smoke inside, such a place transported to Portland would be my idea of heaven. Basilico remains, alas, firmly planted right here on earth.
Not that it doesn't try. There are reminders of the robust food found across the Eternal City. Artichokes, maybe the most emblematic of Roman foods, make an appearance both in a wonderful salad ($6) combining tender baby thistles with arugula and grana Padano cheese and as a crispy fritto ($3). Very tasty, but I really wanted carciofi alla Romana, mint-and-garlic-stuffed artichokes slowly braised in olive oil and wine, a dish to remind me of a little place off the Piazza Venezia.
A double handful of antipasti fritti reflects the Roman passion for things lightly battered and fried in olive oil. Fiori di zucca ($6) contrasts the hot, crackling crust against delicately ephemeral squash blossoms, and the fresh anchovies ($4) were especially tasty. So far, so good. I liked the other antipasti, too, especially fave e piselli ($6), fresh fava beans and pecorino cheese. This combo is a classic Roman snack, the process of shucking and peeling the favas providing an activity to justify numerous glasses of Frascati or Orvieto. Here it's combined into a salad and dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, a nice variation that's easier to eat, even if it doesn't allow for extra drinking.
But where, I wondered, were traditional openers like roasted peppers, eggplant, mushrooms in olive oil, little fried fish soaking in vinegar, and the other antipasti I'd eaten in Trastevere and Testaccio? Where were the cipolline in agrodolce, the most Roman svogliatura of all, the sweet-and-sour snack that combines onions, olive oil and vinegar, the favorite foods of the legionnaires?
OK, Portland isn't Rome. And anyway, I've always felt that any restaurant serving exactly the same food offered in Italy would probably close within a few weeks. We're notoriously picky eaters without the long tradition that brings grown men to blows over whether a real Amatriciana sauce can be made with pancetta, an unsmoked bacon, instead of the cured pork jowl called guanciale.
Fisticuffs won't be necessary at Basilico, where guanciale provides the rich porky quality to a very nice version of the spicy tomato sauce, served over the thick hollow pasta called bucatini. Spaghetti alle sarde ($9), with fresh sardines, raisins and pine nuts, is the kind of dish I'd love to see more of. But Basilico's version was a bit flat and under-seasoned. You can't offer this kind of food and be shy about fat and salt, both of which are needed to kick this dish up to the level of flavor it deserves. The best primi on the list was zuppa di pasta alla Trasteverina ($11), tiny clams and sweet peas in a deeply flavored broth with pasta squares.
The secondi represent a nice selection of standards, from pork roast flavored with rosemary and fennel to pollo alla diavola, a spatchcocked chicken marinated in olive oil and lemon juice spiked with garlic and peperoncini. Saltimbocca ($15)--which means "jump in your mouth"--is thin scallops of veal topped with prosciutto and sage and lightly sautéed, and Basilico's version lives up to its name. A fish special one night featured mackerel, simply grilled and served with baby eggplant and tomato sauce, demonstrating that this kitchen can deliver.
While the food can be a little uneven here, the renovated space is incredibly pleasant. The room is the same familiar box that diners will remember from the Zinc or Zefiro days, but now pale-orange acoustic panels cover most of two walls, rising above comfortable banquettes that perform double duty by further dampening the echo. Even when the restaurant is nearly full, you can actually converse with a tablemate.
Some of Basilico's minor faults, like occasionally inattentive service, can be chalked up to its tender age. The restaurant just opened last summer, and over time the kitchen and dining room should fall into sync. The food needs a little more work, though. I'd like to see even more emulation of real trattoria fare and less concern for Americans' eating sensibilities.
500 NW 21st Ave., 223-2772.5-11pm Monday-Thursday; 5 pm-midnight Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. $$ Moderate.
Picks: Flatbread; artichoke salad; fava bean antipasti; clams and sweet pea pasta; spaghetti with fresh sardines, raisins and pine nuts; and saltimbocca, sautéed veal with prosciutto and sage.
One sign of Chef Paul Ornstein's skill is evident in Basilico's version of "musical paper"--carta di musica or Sardinian flatbread. It's perfect here: crispy, with exactly enough salt, and a light sheen of olive oil that barely leaves a trace on your fingers.