A new neighborhood trattoria introduces Portlanders to the cuisine of Italy’s iconic island.
Amiable chef Francesco Inguaggiato moves nimbly through the 48-seat dining room of his young restaurant, Bellino Trattoria Siciliana (1230 NW Hoyt St, 503-208-2992, bellinoportland.com). He’s a man of both athletic and culinary prowess, a former pro basketball player in Italy who in 2004 moved to the gulf coast of Texas—the home turf of his wife, Susan—and opened a pair of still highly successful Italian restaurants.
You get the sense chef Inguaggiato moves quickly not just on the basketball court or in the kitchen, but in life in general. Referring to his family’s visit to Portland last summer, he says, “We were ready for a change, so we came to see what the city had to offer. We instantly fell in love with it. And on our second day, we found the space that had previously been Fratelli.” A few months later, the family moved here, and this past spring, Bellino opened to rave reviews.
“I decided to go with my roots. I was born and raised in Palermo, and I learned to cook from my mother at my grandfather’s trattoria.”
“I decided to go with my roots,” he says about the restaurant’s Sicilian focus. “I was born and raised in Palermo, and I learned to cook from my mother at my grandfather’s trattoria in Petralia Sottana, a small town in the mountains nearby.” The name Bellino, which means “pretty,” is a sentimental choice for Inguaggiato. “It’s my mother’s maiden name, and it was the name of my grandfather’s restaurant.”
Inguaggiato clearly appreciates bold flavors and textures, as evidenced by the silky, slightly piquant olive oil and satisfyingly chewy bread that kicks off each meal, and the signature Sicilian appetizer, caponata, a timbale of chunky eggplant blended with capers, olives, onions, tomatoes, and a bright sweet-and-sour sauce. “We cook lots of fish and many ingredients—octopus, cauliflower, oranges, eggplants, pistachios—that are huge in Sicily,” he says.
Another starter of note is the Palermo-style fritto misto—this tray of arancino (saffron risotto ball with minced pork, mozzarella, tomatoes, and green peas), polpetta (fried meatballs), and crocchette (potato-cauliflower croquettes with ricotta, lemon, and mint) is ideal for sharing. Other regional specialties include busiati alla trapanese, spiral-shaped strands of fresh-made pasta tossed in a hearty traditional Sicilian pesto blend of almonds, sundried tomatoes, garlic, and basil—although meatless, this rustic dish has the consistency of a ragù. It’s one of several primi pasta dishes that are substantial enough to work as a main dish but could also be paired with a couple of sides (sautéed kale with garlic and chiles, or perhaps the salad of fennel, oranges, celery, olives, and citronette dressing) or one of the lighter secondi, such as flaky Mediterranean sea bass with cherry tomatoes, an orange reduction, and mesclun greens.
Wine drinkers looking to brush up on lesser-known Italian varietals can have plenty of fun with Bellino’s list, which focuses on Sicilian bottles, including quite a few standouts from the island’s renowned Planeta winery. La Secreta is a smooth, food-friendly blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, and two Sicilian white grapes, Grecanico and Fianco, and the island’s most famous wine, inky-red Nero D’Avola, is well-represented. There’s a nice cocktail list, too. The Negroni Spagliato—with vermouth rosso, bitter Campari, and prosecco—has plenty of fans. Beers by Peroni and Moretti are also on offer, along with a few local drafts.
Cap off your meal with one of the deftly executed desserts, each available with a suggested wine or digestif. These sweet endings are portioned judiciously, particularly the cannolo with ricotta, candied orange, pistachio, and chocolate, which is best enjoyed with a glass of the island’s rich and renowned Marsala wine, Vigna La Miccia.
A Sicilian flag hangs outside the restaurant’s front door, bearing the three-legged trinacria, which represents the three corners of the island and serves as Bellino’s logo. The intimate dining room strikes an inviting balance between homey and hip. The high ceiling, concrete floor, central skylight, and striking chandelier with Edison bulbs impart an airy vibe, as does the partially open kitchen. Old-fashioned photographs and repurposed church-pew seating lend an elegant, vintage sensibility. On warm days, patrons often dine at one of the four or five sidewalk tables set along tree-lined Hoyt Street.
Inguaggiato tapped the talents of designer Shannon Ponciano, with Urban ID (319 NW Ninth Ave, 971-255-1886, urbanidnw.com), and contractor Chris Setser, of Surface Brokers, to create the space. “I was blown away by the beauty and quality of the job they did,” he says. “In Italy, we believe good food starts with the house, and the better the presentation, the better it tastes.” Bellino, which has rapidly made its mark as one of the city’s hottest new restaurants, delivers both on the plate and in the dining room. – Andrew Collins / Photos by Amy Ouellette