Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, February 27, 2003
Chain Reaction

When you’re at Ristorante Portofino, you’re, um, family.


Ristorante Portofino

226 Lincoln Square Center, Collins & I-30, Arlington. 817-861-8300. Mon-Thu 11:30am-2:30pm; 5:30pm-10pm. Fri 11:30am-2:30pm; 5:30pm-10pm. Sat 5:30pm-10pm. All major credit cards accepted.

he Metroplex has become a crucial battleground between two Italian restaurant chains whose names needn’t be repeated here, so often are they trotted across our tv screens. One commercial informs you that “When you’re here, you’re family,” which sounds like a warning to all that no one at the table will be immune to rehashed resentments masquerading as political arguments. The other features squabbling brother chefs who, likewise, can’t resist pulling patrons into childhood rivalries. I think the family shtick is a diversionary tactic — when squeezed so close to the bosom of Nonna, you’re less likely to notice how even love, the most special ingredient of all, can’t salvage the utterly pedestrian fare.

North Arlington’s Ristorante Portofino has been digging in its Gucci heels since 1989 at its location in the Lincoln Square Shopping Center on I-30. The chandeliers, mirrored wall surfaces, and live nighttime piano entertainment make a statement the instant you walk through the heavy doors — Portofino will serve no bottomless soup and salad bowls here. Aware of the definitively stated higher standards, a guest and I decided to give Portofino the ultimate test of culinary balance — Italian food for lunch. Ideally, this risky endeavor involves tasting flavors stimulating enough to compensate for the moderate midday packing of carbs. Desired result? The ability to resist slumbering upon return to the office.

The first appetizer triggered an immediate difference of opinion between my dining companion and me. Calamaretti Fritti, or crispy fried calamari, arrived generously heaped in a basket with lemon wedges and a side of room-temperature marinara sauce. The breading was nicely non-greasy but could’ve used more seasoning, while the texture of the obviously fresh calamari delighted me and disconcerted him. I’ve chewed on enough rubbery restaurant squid in my day to qualify for emergency dental relief; Portofino’s was almost buttery, tender enough to be pierced with one good chomp. My friend enjoys a bit of a calamari workout, however, and with some alarm reclassified the Portofino iteration’s mouth feel to “mushy” and wondered if it was undercooked. The second appetizer was an unqualified triumph for both of us: Stuffed Funghi arrived as a small plate of handsome button mushroom caps (obviously never held captive in a bottle or can), lightly drizzled in a butter sauce. The buttonholes were sculpted over with a combination of bread crumbs and Mediterranean seafood, baked crispy on the outside and moist on the inside like a crab cake.

Among the salads large enough to make a meal of, La Mozzarella “Caprese” proved a delightful Italian cheese-flavored combo resting atop a rather damp Caesar salad. Round, firm slices of mozzarella — each topped with a cherry tomato slice, a black olive, and a basil leaf — would’ve made an endearing appetizer served alone on a plate. Indeed, after trying to mix them with the Caesar dressing that clung with gooey persistence to the romaine lettuce leaves underneath, we finally just surrendered and popped the mozzarella rounds into our mouths like hors d’oeuvres.

After all this, we faced our entrées with some trepidation. Does Portofino provide wheelbarrows for folks unable to exit under their own power? But the lunch portions were perfectly sized, bringing us right to the edge of feeling stuffed but stopping before discomfort. The biggest downer was the pasta du jour that rode on the edge of our plates; green- and white-ribbed macaroni had us singing the Kraft Cheese and Macaroni Blues. My friend had the Continental classic Pollo Cordon Bleu, a steaming, juicy chicken breast stuffed with hot prosciutto ham and covered in creamy Mornay sauce. The chicken bled melted Swiss every time you forked it; the nuttiness of the cheese was a perfect foil to the almost-sweet Mornay, shot through with a subtle jolt of Dijon mustard flavor. I looked around somewhat nervously for incognito PETA operatives before ordering the Vitello Piccata, in which exquisitely thin, triangular slices of the cruelest meat in carnivoredom lay with light, happy flavorfulness beneath a tart lemon butter sauce festooned with capers. I never realized how much the breading that often accompanies the preparation of veal masked the delicate flavor of the flesh until I tasted Portofino’s uncloaked Vitello Piccata. I won’t be heartless enough to order veal again ... unless the chefs leave the crumbs in the bread bag.

Portofino’s woody walls, its white tablecloths, and tuxedoed staff make it ideal for a formal business lunch. Your potential clients may be too disarmed by the upscale environs to notice the very reasonable menu prices, and they won’t be bloated into incomprehensibility by typical Italian portions before the deal is closed. But the culinary gauntlet has been thrown down by the Garden and the Grill — these chains have already staked out the consistent-if-unspectacular Italian food territory. On the whole, the only thing different Ristorante Portofino has to offer is its “classy joint” trappings. And how far can you stretch those in the middle of an Arlington shopping center?

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