One of the world's great cooks, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, owns several New York restaurants whose titles are pieces of his name, or nickname: Vong, Jean Georges, and Jo-Jo. The superb chef of Portland's Bluehour, Kenny Giambalvo, has followed suit with the demi-eponymous Balvo, an ambitious venture showcasing Italian food. But if you fractionalize your chefly self, there better be plenty of chops to go around, and that's not yet abundantly clear.
Balvo certainly puts its chef's name or the letter "b" everywhere, including on merchandise for sale in the vitrine windows and interior cases. But has Giambalvo put his stamp on the food? The initial verdict is mixed. One of the problems may be the sheer scale of the operation. In a glamorous, vast space (once home to Northwest 23rd Avenue's Coffee People) that includes a long balcony and at least three eating areas, the restaurant is heroically open nearly 17 hours a day, seven days a week and serves hundreds of people per day; in such circumstances it is hard not to become a bit generic, nor to avoid giving the impression the place exists to be a cash cow. If you order wisely you can have a reasonably good though hardly a great dinner; but if you order injudiciously you can be deeply disappointed. For those growing accustomed to the accelerating quality of such Portland Italian restaurants as Nostrana or Alba, dining at Balvo is a bit like playing Roman roulette.
If you adored the state-of-the-art antipasti fritti at now-shuttered Basilico, you'll weep here, for Balvo's fritto misto ($9) is limp and soggy, drooping like a wet noodle. The risotto ($14) I tried was a bit overladen with ingredients—kale, speck and fontina—and depressingly bland to boot. But the other pastas are superb, and worth sharing for the perfect first course, especially slurpy pappardelle ($15) laced with gamy duck ragout and a showering of orange zest. Agnolotti ($14) are also quite tasty, stuffed with spinach and ricotta and topped with crisp-fried leaves of sage, but they look more like ravioli than the classic crescent-shaped "priests' caps." Another splendid combination rings true in the thin-sliced endive salad ($6) topped with a school of anchovies, a lovely arrangement of sweetness and salt. The best treatment of veal at Balvo is a meltingly luscious, salmon-hued carpaccio ($9) dabbed with dark olive oil, sheer as the diaphanous robes of a Botticelli. A fine starter features a mix of plump squid bodies atop diced eggplant ($8) that's been preserved with oil and lemons: a sour and tart fusion that richly fills the mouth.
The main courses are served à la carte and come ungarnished; the reasonable-seeming prices are thus misleading since you'll need contorni of spinach, rapini or escarole as complements. While the grilled chicken ($15) is juicy and well-charred, other "secondi" seemed utterly pedestrian for a restaurant with lofty ambitions. Veal scaloppine ($18) are not pounded thin but arrived thick as a slab of liver, unappealing in appearance and awash in a sauce of grapefruit and truffle oil. Monkfish wrapped in prosciutto ($21) was carelessly overcooked, while a recent osso buco ($21), a test-case for slow-cooked comfort, seemed tired and lacked much taste. This is odd and disheartening, because I've had both monkfish ans osso buco at Bluehour, where they shone. Is Giambalvo as absent from his new stove as the peripatetic Vongerichten is frequently from his own?
Sweet redemption comes in the form of Jehnee Rains' desserts: A gentle panna cotta ($6) that shimmers like an ice floe, or a clean-flavored Meyer-lemon sorbetto ($5) paradoxically enhanced with pistachio-studded whipped cream.
At Balvo there's energy without bedlam, nostalgic '50s Italian music, and lighting that's just right. But with the combined pedigree of Giambalvo and co-owner Bruce Carey, this ought to be a place to make you salivate within 50 meters. For the moment, some dishes get nicely off the ground, but others simply lie there, waiting for a pick-me-up. The bar is too high now for unexacting standards, no matter how many patrons are seated. I'm afraid that ubiquitous "B" stands for the grade I'd give the place.
Balvo, 529 NW 23rd Ave., 445-7400. Open 7 am-11 am Sunday-Thursday, 7 am-midnight Friday-Saturday. $$$ Expensive.