Three weeks ago we brought you a special holiday treat, when the talented pastry chef at Pazzo Ristorante baked 200 delicious gingerbread cookies for local Portlanders. We do hope you were able to partake in the merriment and otherwise had a wonderful holiday.
This week we head back to Pazzo for a meal and interview with executive chef Kenny Giambalvo. Since returning to Pazzo in June, after a three-year run in the late 90s, Giambalvo has reformed it into a traditional Italian restaurant with a decidedly Pacific Northwestern flair and he is unapologetic about it.
“We stay connected to our community,” he says. “We are authentic Italian, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” It’s a jovial connection to community that comes from Giambalvo’s Long Island upbringing in an old-school Italian family.
Giambalvo grew up in New York with his parents, grandparents and siblings. It was the quintessential boisterous Italian family we all know and love. “My mom had to cook for six kids and four adults every night,” he says with a chuckle.
Considering how much needed to be done, Giambalvo and his siblings were routinely recruited for kitchen duty. It was then that the budding chef within him began to manifest itself. “At about twelve or thirteen I got good at it, so instead of setting the table, I was brought in to help cook the food,” he says.
And this was the kind of food that would take you places, by smell alone. “Food, home, culture, it’s all intertwined,” says Giambalvo.
Part of his cultural experience included waking up every Sunday morning to a special sauce first created by his grandmother, then passed to his grandfather, and finally to his mom. It was a special sauce that he now calls his own, and delivers to you at Pazzo.
“The sauce was very traditional,” Giambalvo explains. “Meatballs, pork, sausages and other parts of the cow that happened to be in the house that weekend went into the sauce. They would braise and cook slowly, all day long until it was fork tender.”
Today, you can experience Giambalvo’s version in the pappardelle dish. Large, very broad, flat pasta noodles are made in-house, smothered in nana’s Sunday sauce and sprinkled with chopped basil and pecorino romano. It’s a simple dish that bursts with flavor and textural complexity.
The Traveling Chef
After learning he had the cooking bug, Giambalvo would go on to work at a Howard Island seafood restaurant. He went from cleaning fifty pounds of squid to shucking clams and oysters to finally landing at a French restaurant, where is skills were finely-tuned.
Soon, his experience would land him positions cooking in places like Singapore and Los Angeles. It was while he was in Los Angeles that he was approached by Kimpton Hotels to take the helm at Pazzo.
“They flew me up in April,” he says. “It was seventy-two degrees and blue sky for the whole weekend. I signed the deal, moved up here, and it was fifty-six degrees and raining,” he finishes with a laugh.
Fortunately, Giambalvo fell in love with Portland, and for good reason. After forging his talent in the harsh culinary fires of New York and Los Angeles, the Portland restaurant scene seemed like a total breeze.
“This is utopia,” he says flatly. “Even though it is competitive and we do have many more restaurants now than anyone ever dreamed we’d have, New York is pretty fierce.”
So here he stayed. After three years at Pazzo, Giambalvo worked other positions around town, at one point even working with Bruce Carey at Bluehour. He has been invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, twice.
But then, as is sometimes the case, kids entered the picture, and Giambalvo re-evaluated his priorities. He decided to take a school-year sabbatical. “It was amazing, dropping them off and picking them up and cooking for them every night,” he says with a big smile and glint in his eye.
Once the school year was up, however, he was ready to return back to work, and Pazzo was ready to have him back.
A Triumphant Return
Upon his return to the restaurant he once helmed, Giambalvo has settled into a relaxed role, and it shows in the effortlessness of his food. He focuses on meals that serve up the basic Italian food you are looking for, but puts a distinct spin on it.
Simple things like an arugula with mozzarella and prosciutto are elevated with complex preparations. The burrata is composed of finely chopped mozzarella mixed with crème, molded into a sphere and put inside of a warm, but still stringy, pouch of mozzarella. When it cools, it sets up a bit. Biting down reveals a warm, creamy ball of mozzarella cheese within the cooler cheese outer shell. Combine it with the salt of the prosciutto and the crunch of arugula and black pepper, and it’s pretty much perfect.
Where some places may put an extreme focus on dinner at the expense of all else, Giambalvo makes sure special touches are sprinkled throughout the menu. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Dungeness crab & avocado sandwich. The crab is fresh, local and succulent. Oven-dried and re-hydrated tomatoes, fresh avocado, bacon and lemon juice round out this epic lunch sandwich. Eat it slowly.
With such delectable fare on order, it’s good to know one can relax in a spacious and comfortable environment. Pazzo’s interior design is simple, with clean lines and dark colors. It’s a style that will give you a sense of travel without the expensive plane ticket. Noise levels are moderate and the delicious scents emanating from the kitchen are sure to have your salivary glands working overtime.
So whether it’s for soft, warm gingerbread cookies or Italian food with a twist, Pazzo is awaiting your discerning palate. Located at 627 SW Washington St, Portland, Oregon, 97205, Pazzo can be reached by calling 503.228.1515 or by visiting their website here. Pazzo is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is longtime journalist and blogger with over twelve years of professional writing experience. After a long career as an entertainment and political columnist, William now spends his time expounding on Portland restaurants, Portland plays and Android smartphone apps. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.