Portofino is a quaint Italian village located in Liguria up in the northwest corner of the peninsula. And it’s probably easier to get to than its restaurant namesake in Gastonia, North Carolina. They say a good Italian restaurant is hard to find; boy, were they right! GPS got me into the neighborhood, but it took a phone call to a native guide at the eatery to navigate my way through the maze of stores and strip malls to find the exact location. Ultimately, though, it was really worth the effort.
Walking through the front door lands you squarely in front of the pizza counter. This is not a bad thing, as it lends a nice authentic Italian-American pizzeria air to the experience. A friendly guy, who turned out to be one of the owners, greeted us, saying, “You must be the one who called me. Glad you found us. Sit anywhere you like.” He indicated the dining room off to the right.
It’s a nice dining room. The furnishings, while not elegant, are functional and comfortable. There’s a beautiful mural adorning one wall. Maybe it’s a tad dark and a little dated, but who cares? I’m here for the food, you know?
The service could not have been better. Mike, our waiter, was everything a waiter should be. He was pleasant, friendly, helpful, informative, and very efficient. It was late after a Saturday dinner service and there weren’t too many other diners in the place, so we were quite pleased by the speed with which our food was brought to the table.
The food itself was wonderful. Mike informed us that one of the owners – one other than the pizzaiolo who greeted us – prepared the meal himself. I was told he was direct from Naples – or Napoli, as Mike quickly corrected himself to say – and even though we were eating pretty standard Italian-American fare, that Neapolitan influence came through in the dishes.
The menu features two levels of antipasti. One level contains the more authentic offerings such as mozzarella alla Caprese and real, actual bruschetta, not just the typical Americanized garlic bread. That item appears on the more typical part of the menu, along with garlic cheese bread and fried mozzarella sticks. We opted for the Caprese, and were not disappointed. Real mozzarella di buffala served with slices of tomatoes and torn basil leaves drizzled over with a remarkably flavorful olive oil. A definite Neapolitan touch.
I like the layout of the pasta menu. The types of pasta available – cappellini, linguini, fettuccini, penne, and spaghetti – are printed horizontally across the top. An impressive variety of sauces and preparations are then listed vertically below. Needless to say, all are made in house.
The entrees were sized proportionately to the average American appetite, meaning we all knew there would be boxes of leftovers in our future. My choice was spaghetti al pomodoro. Here was more evidence of Napoli. This was not the pile of spaghetti covered in tomato sauce that I rather expected. Instead, the pasta was presented in a light sauce of rich diced tomatoes with chunks of garlic interspersed among a generous seasoning of fresh basil. The sauce was a condiment accentuating the pasta, as it should be in authentic Italian cuisine. It was superbo! Of course, I couldn’t have eaten it all without doing serious injury to myself, but it was just as delicious warmed over for lunch the next day.
My wife and one of our friends arranged a trade; she ordered meat ravioli from the “Vecchie Specialita” section of the menu and he chose the del Boscaiola sauce over penne from the “Pasta” list. They then portioned out sample bites for one another. Our other companion also went to the “Vecchie Specialita” side for her manicotti.
Everybody was ecstatic over their choices, but the penne alla Boscaiola was a particularly big hit. I snagged a bite from the portion for which my wife traded her ravioli and it was amazing. Different, too. A typical al boscaiola – which roughly translates to “woodsman’s style” – is a Tuscan staple consisting of prosciutto and/or pancetta with mushrooms and Parmesan cheese in a cream sauce. Here there were no mushrooms – none that I could discern, anyway. Peas were substituted with very tasty results.
There’s more than pasta, of course. The menu has lots of delectable-looking chicken, veal, and seafood dishes and an ample selection of sandwiches. And I think I mentioned pizza, right? Gotta go back and try some. If it’s half as good as the rest of the menu, I’ll consider moving to Gastonia.
Let me give a quick mention to the complimentary bread. I ate way too much of it which is probably why I had no room left for the sumptuous dessert offerings. The bread comes warm in a basket with the ubiquitous little containers of butter. But please notice there is a cruet of olive oil on the table and take advantage of it. I did. I was told the oil is an Italian import. I hope so. After voraciously dipping the warm, crusty bread in it and bragging on it the way I did, I’d hate to discover that it came from the supermarket down the street. But I don’t think that was the case. I import my olive oil and this stuff was every bit as good as what I have shipped in. I could drink it straight.
Speaking of drinking, a nice selection of beer and wine was offered as well as the usual assortment of soft drinks and coffees.
As noted, none of us had room for dessert, a real shame because the cannoli, tiramisu, cheesecake, and spumoni all looked pretty good. Next time, for sure.
The atmosphere at Portofino’s is casual and family-friendly. The prices are quite reasonable. The pasta dishes were $6.95 and we doled out four bucks more for the ravioli and the manicotti. At $8.95, the mozzarella alla Caprese was a little above the average Italian-American restaurant appetizer price, but the quality was well worth the extra dollar or two. Parking is no problem; we are talking strip mall here.
Located at 3736 East Franklin Blvd in Gastonia, NC (28056), Portofino Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria is open daily from 10:30 to 10. Call them – I had to – at (704) 824-2143. Or you can check out their website at http://portofinoitalianrestaurant.com .