THERE'S MUCH to admire about Sicilian cuisine. It's exuberant, and works within a range of rustic to sumptuous (though it's never pretentious). Its building blocks are often simple local ingredients, the produce of the land. Fresh seafood plays a big role. And it's a hybrid cuisine, having absorbed cultural influences throughout the ages: The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Spanish, and Normans have all left their mark. So it's a pity that Bellino Trattoria Siciliana, which recently opened in the Pearl and claims to be Portland's only Sicilian restaurant, provides such a bumpy and frustrating dining experience.
Take the caponata ($12). An antipasto with eggplant and other humble ingredients, it's a dish that aspires to opulence when done properly. Here, though, it tasted exactly like the sum of its parts—evenly cooked eggplant, celery, olives, onions, and tomatoes served with toast—rather than transcending them for an interplay of flavors. As one of my dining companions said, "It's not bad, but it's the least favorite I've ever had," which sums up my time at Bellino.
Chef and owner Francesco Inguaggiato hails from Palermo in Sicily and previously ran two Sicilian restaurants in Texas before moving to Portland, so presumably he knows the cuisine. Frustratingly, there are glimpses of better things at Bellino, but it's nowhere near consistent enough. They may still be sorting out the kitchen, but this is higher-end dining with the sticker prices to match, and the customer really shouldn't be the guinea pig.
The extreme range of quality is best exhibited with the pasta options. The best dish by far was the anelletti al forno ($16), small rings of pasta (like high-class SpaghettiOs) with a Bolognese sauce. It had a nice crispy shell from being baked, and the meat sauce was rich—it was quickly devoured. The linguine vongole e broccoletti had the bones of a good dish—fine noodles, well-cooked clams—but it was way under-seasoned (a frequent problem), with no sign of the advertised chile, it just failed to "pop" (especially at $18). Worse was the bucatini con le sarde ($16), which had no crunch, and even though it contained anchovies, it required salting, and the breadcrumbs were lost in the pasta. It was dry and bland; after the initial bites, it sat undisturbed until the server graciously removed it from the table—and the bill.
Entrées, or secondi, were equally confusing and inconsistent. Spiedino di pesce spada is swordfish on a rosemary skewer, which is a nice touch and adds to the flavor, dressed with lemon, oil, and herbs. It tasted good. The problem was with the rest of the plate: slabs of zucchini, piles of sautéed fennel, a fingerling potato, and a couple of tiny, stranded tomatoes on the side. Any of those flavors would work with the fish, but bluntly dumped on the plate, there was no sense they were working toward a common cause, or could combine into a "bite." And with just four small cubes of swordfish, the $26 price seemed unwarranted.
It was a similar story with the sea bass ($28). The fish was precisely cooked and agreeably paired with an orange reduction, but there was a handful of greens lumped on the side of the plate, not even dressed properly, accompanied by a scoop of plain mash. It was as if the fish and the sides had been prepared in two different kitchens.
As a category, dessert was the most successful. The almond panna cotta ($8) had a firm texture and a fine taste, while the chocolate and nut tart ($8) was moist, with a long, sumptuous finish. They came with some excellent wine pairings, and the Sicilian-based wine list (with many bottles in the $20-30 range) is worth exploring.
Service was uneven, and waiters struggled to describe dishes: While one said they make some pasta in-house, another said it was all imported from Italy. It seemed indicative of the lack of refinement and attention to detail found throughout. Bellino is in the spot previously occupied by Fratelli, a neighborhood Italian restaurant that enjoyed a 15-year run. Hopefully, the new owners can find a way to join up the dots and replicate that success.
Lunch Tues-Sat 11 am-2 pm. Dinner Tues-Thurs 5-9 pm, Fri-Sat 5-10 pm. Happy hour Tues-Sat 4-6 pm. Full bar. Reservations accepted.