The word was out on Portofino a few years ago, when new ownership led to a decline from what had long been known as a special spot, an unassuming gem wedged into a small strip plaza in Warwick. Well, this time the “under new management” banner, contrary to what happened last time, will not be the culinary kiss of death. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Back in November, the giant coffee-colored awning added lower-case script to the marquee and elizabeth of Portofino announced new ownership and a subsequent rebirth of an excellent Italian restaurant for those in the know.
The narrow hallway entrance leads to a handsome bar and lounge area with nine tables, a room ideal for a private get-together. The familiar seaside tapestries (Portofino is a seaside village on Italy’s northwest coast) adorn the walls, adjacent to a decidedly elegant dining area that was steady with business during our Wednesday night excursion.
Owner Elizabeth Krause greeted us as we opted for a table on the lounge side. Of course, it’s always a good sign when the owner works the floor, which usually assures attentive service. That was certainly the case with our excellent waiter, Joe, who offered honest insight in response to our multiple menu inquiries. And since we asked ahead about the desserts (most of them outsourced) on the continually flying trays, we instead opted to indulge in literally half of the appetizer choices.
The guys were tempted by the colorful antipasto platter ($12) shared at the bar. We agreed on the obligatory calamari ($9), stuffed mushrooms ($8), and debated between the eggplant rollitini ($8) or fried mozzarella ($7). Joe was sure to recommend the signature Portofino clams ($10), slow-simmered with onion, garlic, tomatoes, and chorizo. The calamari fritti and funghi farciti were standard, and the dangerously thick triangles of breaded mozzarella were heart stoppingly good, if a bit too Americanized, but also offered our first taste of the house marinara (here called pomodoro), fresh and chunky with character.
We couldn’t keep our forks (and elizabeth’s dense and delicious bread) out of the pool of diced chorizo and onions swimming in a hearty, smoky broth (filling up a grinder roll came to mind). The slow simmer paid off as the tender clams fully absorbed the bold flavors. The escarole soup also needs a mention, loaded with carrots and juicy, shredded chicken and a more robust broth. It was fantastic.
Entrée selections include plenty of the usual culinary culprits — marsala, saltimbocca, and zingarella aplenty, along with a creamy gnocchi Sorrentino ($15), grilled rack of lamb ($24), or bistecca Umbriago ($25), tenderloin smothered in sautéed mushrooms and red wine demi-glace. Always on the search for the next best Puttanesca ($16), I leaned toward one of the specials, but was ultimately more intrigued by a dish billed as an eggplant stack ($19), with grilled chicken, prosciutto, and mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.
The opening round of clams convinced Tom to stay seaside with the linguine pescatore ($19). Joe commended us on both choices, and with good reason: colorful, fragrant layers of basil and the flavorful prosciutto were balanced with creamy ricotta and melted mozzarella, stacked between tender, sliced eggplant and marinated chicken. The presentation rivaled the mellow, refreshing flavors in the dish, and my requested side of penne (in true Italian style, not drowning in sauce) was on point.
I was also dabbling in the pescatore across the way. While Tom considered the linguine just past al dente, all was forgiven with a generous mélange of juicy littlenecks, seared scallops, and a half-dozen shrimp bathing in an appropriately lighter tomato-and-white wine sauce.
Ms. Krause pulled up a chair and chatted while pouring Limoncello shots (a lost Portofino tradition). Passing on the house-made crème brûleé, Joe insisted we at least wrap it up with an Espresso Martini ($9). His on-duty bartender buddy looked exactly like B-list actor Chris Penn, but concocted an A-plus martini, laced with a drizzle of chocolate. It went down so easy we had to order another round halfway through.
The good word is now out on Elizabeth of Portofino, which should be considered a destination restaurant once again.