Judged by his very best dishes, Basilio Pesce is a magician with the flavours of Italian home cooking.
The filling in the chef's extraordinary chicken liver agnolotti nearly levitates with mousse-like lightness. His grilled octopus on creamy semolina plays like a classic metamorphosis illusion – how else could he transform such unassuming foodstuffs into something so tender and tasty that you're apt to dream about it afterward for days on end?
Even his pasta Bolognese, a special earlier this month, tastes way out of the ordinary. "So, the tagliatelle sauce is horsemeat … I don't know how you feel about that," a server announced, cautiously.
I felt good about it – bloody fantastic after I'd tasted it. Even the people of Bologna, the sauce's birthplace, don't make Bolognese sauce as round-flavoured and soul-satisfying, as magical, as this.
Porzia is Mr. Pesce's first turn as chef-owner. The restaurant is named after his mother, who was born and raised near Bari, Italy. He's had a strong career, from his start at North 44 at the end of the 1990s to his six-year run most recently as executive chef at Biff's Bistro. Mr. Pesce, who is 40, has never cooked in an Italian restaurant until now.
When Porzia is good, the place is a testament to the simple decadence of slow-simmered Neapolitan tomatoes and top-quality olive oil, of bracing citrus salads and chiles, of semolina flour, browned, nutty butter, seared wild mushrooms and sage and creamy chicken livers kissed with expensive vinegar. Porzia is very good on quiet nights, early in the week.
When Porzia is busy, it's less enthralling. The long, narrow room can get so loud, especially in the core of the little restaurant, that the easiest course of action is to give up on conversation, to mime or shout if you feel the urge to communicate. (Up front is slightly quieter.)
Our server had trouble hearing our order one Thursday evening, on my first of three visits. (This followed a 20-minute wait for a first drink; the floor staff were stretched too thin.) The whole place is furnished with sound-reflecting surfaces: floor-to-ceiling glass at the entrance, fiberglass Eames chairs, antique mirrors everywhere. The music sounds like noise on noise on noise. The tables are spaced so tightly that to squeeze between them is a deeply intimate experience (go bum-out, not crotch, if you can help it).
You're strongly advised to resist the urge to dawdle here. Porzia's website includes a list of injunctions, including: "Every table is allotted a two-hour dining time. Please note that this begins at your booked reservation time, and that late arrivals do not guarantee an extended dining window."
Nothing quite says, "welcome, we can't wait to serve you," like a list of rules.
And no matter the night, for each of Mr. Pesce's knockout
dishes, you've got to wade through one or two that don't taste quite right.
There was the fatty, under-seasoned hunk of pork belly one evening on a shallow bowl of canellini beans that were hard and chalky in their middles instead of creamy. There was a dish of eggplant involtini, built on bright red, beautifully seasoned, pitch-perfect tomato sauce – the taste of Southern Italian summer — but in which the eggplant wrappers tasted raw.
Uncooked eggplant contains an alkaloid called solanine, the same one found in green potatoes. In small quantities it merely tastes bitter and makes your lips tingle. If you eat a lot it's far worse. My lips started buzzing after the first few bites, as did my dinner date's. (Mr. Pesce said that the eggplant was lightly roasted before being used.)
Even the salumi platter, the pride and joy of too many chefs, fizzled. It was salty in spots, fatty and bland in others, and nothing about it was memorable. The menu doesn't need a salumi platter. It's meaty enough already. Porzia might be a far better restaurant if its kitchen did less sometimes instead of more.
Which is not how I want to leave this. There is exactly zero joy in pointing out Porzia's faults – faults that Mr. Pesce acknowledged he is acutely aware of – and I believe that the chef is smart enough and talented enough and cares enough to fix them.
The way I want to leave it is with the plate of testa I had on the first night I ate there. Testa means head, in this case the deep-savoury sweetmeat from a slow-cooked pig's head, formed into little packets before being breaded, fried and scattered with celery and caviar-like pickled mustard seeds. Does that sound good? It was, crazily so. I want to leave it with Mr.
Pesce's citrus, olive and mint salad that seemed to transport my table one night from a noisy room in late-winter Toronto to a sunny orange grove on the Sicilian coast. I want to leave it with his blessedly light-handed take on trippa alla Romana, one of the greatest comfort dishes going.
And I want to leave it with his cavallo tonnato – the classic Italian dish of veal, capers and tuna, but made with shaved, sous-vide cooked horse shoulder instead of veal. The albacore tuna was chunky, preternaturally moist from olive-oil poaching, tossed onto a china plate with a heady, creamy, briny, brain-puckering pool of caper aioli, and a small mound of shaved pink shoulder meat that looked like it might have been food-styled by a Renaissance painter. (There is a quiet Modernist underpinning to many of Mr. Pesce's best dishes; in addition to the sous-vide cookers, he keeps a Pacojet in the basement, the secret to those ultra-light chicken liver agnolotti.)
Everything about the cavallo tonnato was brilliant. It's a new benchmark in my mind for how to reimagine a classic, to make seemingly clashing tastes sing. The magician was on his game.
If I'm fair, though, I've got to end with a plea to Mr. Pesce. Fix the service, take out a few tables, make more dishes like that cavallo tonnato and the testa, fewer that trip on amateur mistakes.
On balance, Porzia is merely very good. It should be one of the greats.