For 12 years, Elizabeth Petrosian carried a picture with her everywhere she went.
It was of the restaurant she hoped to start with her husband, Florence-born chef Paolo Calamai, a picture of a Rome cafe and trattoria called Gusto that she had snipped from a magazine.
Calamai was working in restaurants in Italy and the U.S., but the pair didn't have the money to start their own place.
They had seen Portland's food carts on visits with friends, and realized this was a way they could afford their own restaurant. They moved here two years ago to open a cart called Burrasca serving the food of Calamai's Tuscan homeland.
On the menu was wild boar pappardelle with handmade pasta and slow-cooked ragu, a rich tomato-basil pappa al pomodoro soup with bread sopping up its warmly acidic flavor, and fresh biscotti Calamai had made. His inzimino was like no other food in Portland, inky black and intense with the flavors of spinach, tomato and calamari.
"I was constantly working," says Calamai, who prepped his food at home for hours before starting an eight-hour shift in the cart's kitchen.
Burrasca's food didn't taste like anything that should come out of a parking lot. In February 2014, when Willamette Week named Burrasca our Food Cart of the Year, we wrote that it seemed more like a fine open-air restaurant.
And in a certain sense it was. A cart was never the goal— it was just one more step toward being able to own the place in the picture.
Last April, Petrosian saw that Block's cafe on Southeast Clinton Street was closing.
"I walked in," she says, "and it looked just like the picture." The restaurant was cozy, like the bustling restaurants Petrosian and Calamai knew from Florence, with European-style décor and a patio out back where diners could enjoy summer weather. "When I saw the long banquette with the pressed tin above, and the open kitchen and clean modern lines, I knew this had to be it," she says.
Twelve years later, they finally owned the restaurant in the photograph Petrosian had saved.
They didn't have the money to do everything they wanted yet with the space—a reviewer for the local daily was offended by an overly bright patio light bulb—but Burrasca sprang to life in August as a fully formed Florentine restaurant with Calamai at the helm. It felt, even after a month, as if it had been there for years.
Burrasca isn't fancy. It is not a Pacific Northwest twist on Continental from a highly pedigreed chef with hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial backing.
It is instead a type of restaurant that Portland almost never sees, and certainly doesn't see executed so well. Burrasca is a provincial spot with simple flavors nurtured with care—a humble, lovely ode to the food of its chef's hometown.
It is not uncommon for your glass to be filled or your plate brought by Calamai himself, or for diners on busy nights to be greeted by Petrosian as they take a glass of wine or grappa on a little standing table while waiting for a seat to come open.
Table wine is a mere $20 a bottle—Calamai knew the Il Bastardo vintner from home—and the menu offers fine craft Italian beers like Menabrea and Enki rarely seen in American restaurants, alongside Negronis and a selection of Italian grappa that is growing just as fast as Calamai can get the bottles from Italy.
But most important, the food feels like it was transported directly from the old country. The sformato appetizer, a savory flan made with sweet pea or cauliflower, blossoms with the unmistakable flavor and texture of slow-cooked bechamel. The inzimino remains just as singular and addictive as it was at Calamai's cart. Each meal comes with a series of little accents both simple and delectable: housemade Tuscan bread, refreshing cannellini beans, golden beet salad with zucchini and green beans.
But the dish that sums up the restaurant is the tagliatelle with beef ragu—the same tomato-sauced pasta Italian chefs have been making for centuries. Serving it is like standing naked, with all your flaws and virtues, and Calamai's is beautifully balanced in its sweetness and acidity, with pasta served perfectly al dente.
Your dessert should always be Calamai's favorite from his childhood in Florence, a zuccotto cake flavored with alchermes liqueur and filled with multiple custards that must be frozen and then thawed.
"It is a simple dessert," Calamai says, "but it is a lot of work."
GO: 2032 SE Clinton St., 236-7791, burrascapdx.com. 11:30 am-2:30 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9:30 pm Friday-Saturday.