CARS HOMES JOBS

At the Table: Portofino’s Ristorante serves Italian fare — with a twist

Sunday, October 21, 2012
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— Husband Eric was grumpy. Having been dragged away from his books, sofa and fireplace on a chilly Saturday night, he didn’t relish the idea of dinner at an unknown restaurant in a hotel in Latham. He was in much better spirits after dinner. Portofino’s exceeded his expectations, and he was stuffed and happy.

I’ve had Portofino’s in my back pocket, so to speak, as a fall-back fine dining restaurant. The restaurant we had intended to visit was packed to the gills and had a long wait. “An hour and five minutes,” the hostess had said with remarkable specificity. So we headed to Portofino’s.

It’s easy to get to and serves crowd-pleasing Italian cuisine (“With a twist,” said Anthony, who stopped by our table and introduced himself as an owner).

The restaurant lies off the northbound ramp from the Latham Circle to Route 9 in the Travelodge hotel. Its fancy etched glass double doors are on the left at the main entrance, the hotel lobby is on the right. A smiling hostess welcomed us and settled us at a comfortable table in a corner with a good view of the dining room.

The dining area on the main floor shares space with a hardwood dance floor. A few steps up there is additional dining, with a full bar at the back. The room is tastefully and sparely decorated, with ivory patterned wallpaper and chandeliers nestled into coves in the acoustical tile ceiling. The upholstered banquet chairs are comfortable, linens abundant, the dining space defined by Asian-style wooden screens. The neutral color scheme with a few decorative elements distracts you from the fact that the space could work for a hundred guests at a banquet.

Portofino’s Italian Ristorante

WHERE: 831 New Loudon Road, Latham. 608-4675, www.portofinolatham.com

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday. 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: $76.80, with tax and tip

MORE INFO: Wheelchair accessible. Children’s menu. Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, American Express. Live entertainment on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Simple but surprising

The menu is simple and offers a few surprises: Appetizers include calamari and bruschetta, but also eggplant Napoleon and lumache alla Milanese, snails in garlic, butter and herbs. You’ll find chicken parm under Primi, for $15 it includes bread and salad. But this breaded cutlet is stuffed with fresh mozzarella and basil, an inside out “twist.” Prices are reasonable — under Secondi there is a 12-ounce strip steak with marrow, demi-glace and seasonal vegetables for $22. Dinners include salad.

I considered the boneless fried pork osso bucco with truffle marscapone arancini: breaded, stuffed rice balls, ($13 small, $23 entree-sized), or seared yellowfin tuna ($14, $24). I don’t know how profitable the tiered pricing is, but it works for me if I’m having more than one course. We ordered the smaller portions and still had leftovers.

The server poured fruity green olive oil and sweet balsamic vinegar into a small bowl to accompany freshly baked warm bread. A shallow dish or plate might work better, as the proportion of oil to vinegar doesn’t work out until after a few slices of bread have been dunked.

Perfect starter

I started with grilled asparagus prosciutto di Parma ($8), tasty charred spears that warmed the translucent ham and arugula. A bit of honey contrasted with the salty prosciutto and char on the asparagus. Perfect. I offered to share the garnish, a salty wafer of fried cheese, but didn’t mean it.

Eric ordered New England style calamari, distinguished by fried cherry peppers and sliced green onion ($8) and pronounced it tender. I liked the peppery flavor of the batter, but it could have been crisper. Eric liked it just fine and finished it off using both sauces, the marinara and spicy mayonnaise.

Portofino’s serves icy cold, handsome and colorful mesclun salads with a house balsamic dressing that’s just a bit too tangy for us. I liked the shredded carrot and fluffy greens and left the cucumber; Eric ate it all.

A single veal chop ($20, $29 for two) is a big serving, and this one was cooked a perfect medium rare. It’s seasoned and grilled, served with three kinds of mushrooms in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. “I shouldn’t be eating the fat,” Eric said, eating the fat around the edge of the hefty chop. “But it’s delicious.”

I had a small order of shrimp Basilico ($16, $20), three jumbo sauteed shrimp in a creamy pesto sauce with thick, heavenly ribbons of homemade pappardelle pasta, nestled into the center bowl of a broad white dish. The fresh basil flavor made me think ruefully of my just-frosted herb garden, while the thick sauce was rich and creamy. The shrimp were sweet and picture-perfect. But it needed salt, or grated cheese. The cheerful server brought a bowl of grated parmesan.

Homemade desserts

At Portofino’s, the homemade desserts are excellent. Eric chose the lemon-apricot panna cotta ($5), a jewel of a dessert with silky, creamy eggless custard. It’s piped attractively into a dainty glass dish and topped with fresh whipped cream and gorgeous fresh berries. “It’s light,” said Eric, polishing it off.

You must try the spice cake ($6); it is astonishingly good: inky, moist chocolate cake laced with cayenne pepper, layered with chocolate mousse topped with a wafer and daubs of sweetened whipped cream, garnished with slivers of fresh mint and basil. The cayenne sneaks up on you only after you’ve savored the chocolate flavor of the cake, it warms just a little, but all over your mouth. The mousse was a bit runny but delicious, especially when licked off the crumb-coated sugary wafer. What is remarkable is that in addition to a cheese plate, there are five homemade desserts.

The young servers have not yet learned economy of motion, but are pleasant, thoughtful and friendly. Host Anthony gallantly pitched in.

From freshly baked bread to precision-engineered desserts, Portofino’s has created a world from scratch.

 
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