Pasta is a difficult item to take seriously in the cutthroat world of fine dining. Anyone can boil spaghetti and heat up some store-bought marinara sauce in the microwave. Thus, an upscale pasta joint has to really wow me if I'm going to feel good about dropping my cash there.
Started by the folks behind Blue Hour, and tapping the Italian heritage of BH head chef Kenny Giambalvo, new NW 23rd pasta/espresso joint Balvo offers an oddly unsatisfying dining experience given the glorious reputation of its older sister. Where Blue Hour offers a sleekly intimate atmosphere that's somehow both cool and warm, Balvo feels kind of awkward—a huge, sprawling, double-decker corner space with a quantity of staff that rivals the quantity of customers. I counted at least four employees at the front desk alone, including a guy whose sole job seemed to be opening and closing the door for people. The aimless excess creates an aura of corporate detachment, and some questionable design choices are off-putting, like the giant orange ball with Balvo's trendy lowercase "b" logo that dangles from the ceiling.
And wherever your opinion lies on the inherently non-gourmet properties of pasta, it's moot here, because Balvo's pasta isn't great anyway, though it is expansive. With 17 noodle dishes to choose from, including intriguing options like spaghetti Nero (with cuttlefish and squid ink), and a braised veal-stuffed ravioli, I settled on the fairly standard penne, if only to see how Balvo's $12 version compared to La Buca's $6 version, which contains a similar combination of black olives, anchovies, capers, tomatoes, and hot pepper, and is always fresh and tasty. Balvo's rendition was a letdown, too heavy on the tomatoes (which drowned out the would-be tantalizing olive/caper blend) and it was so al dente as to be mildly crunchy. My friend fared better with the duck ragu pappardelle, a steaming mound of floppy, rectangular pasta strewn with hunks of duck flesh that had the consistency of meatballs. A shot of orange zest through the dish was a unique and welcome touch.
Side dishes also fared well. The fagioli was described as "borlotti beans with rosemary and virgin olive oil." What emerged was a small pile of grayish legumes that tasted like baked beans from a can, but who doesn't like baked beans from a can? And the carpaccio di vitello, a sizable appetizer consisting of thinly sliced raw free-range veal with crunchy layers of arugula, celery, and parmesan cheese flakes, was tremendous. Carpaccio is always a daring maneuver due to the fact that it's... well... raw beef, but when prepared well, it's a strangely creamy, magical delight. If all Balvo's selections were as strong as its carpaccio, it would be a force to be reckoned with.
Alas, they're not, (though for dessert we did score a rich, succulent piece of chocolate truffle cake—the only other dish that lived up to its price tag), which isn't to say they're bad either; in fact, I would describe Balvo's cuisine as "decent." But when you're charging top dollar for pasta while a 99-cent pack of acceptable spaghetti can be bought just up the street at Fred Meyer, "decent" isn't gonna cut it.