There’s a tall, twinkling Christmas tree in the middle of the dimly lit dining room of Portofino Ristorante in Arlington.
It reaches from floor to ceiling amid the rows of dark wooden tables with their glaring-white cloths, napkins, and plates. The warm, comforting evergreen does its best to beat back the Grinch that’s besetting Portofino this year: road construction. Portofino is located in the Lincoln Square shopping center right off the Collins Street exit from I-30 — the closed Collins Street exit. Visitors are now forced to circumnavigate pretty much all of Arlington to reach the Italian mainstay’s canopied entrance, around the corner from a Best Buy. The epic, twisty-turny route has cut business, by one server’s estimation, nearly in half. “And it’s only going to get worse,” he predicted solemnly.
A recent weekday lunch visit indeed proved Portofino to be nearly as still and silent as a Dickensian manor. This is a shame, because while there were no unexpected revelations on the solid and extensive if traditional menu, the ma-and-pa restaurant still has the oven dials turned to a high comfort level. But what’s bad for Portofino might be good for diners who prefer a quiet setting and aren’t too worried about blowing a few extra cents’ worth of gasoline. Portofino’s vegetable alla griglia is perfect for vegetarians, but meat-eaters shouldn’t deny themselves its pleasures. Grilled-’til-dark-and-smoky slices of zucchini, squash, red pepper, and artichoke hearts hid beneath a bird’s nest of steaming capellini pasta with olive oil and mild minced garlic. Flecks of prickly basil made everything sing.
Though advertised as “with a cream sauce,” the tortellini gratinati did not come with the pure, heavy alfredo familiar to most. Instead, small amounts of alfredo and tomato sauce tangoed in a casserole dish of baked, mozzarella-stuffed tortellini shells, with basil-inflected parmesan cheese melted on top. “Savory” doesn’t begin to describe Portofino’s unique concoction — but if you order it, don’t plan on eating for the next few weeks. Best of all was the Pollo Vesuvio, and it was the bechamel sauce — one of alfredo’s less distinguished cousins — that put it over the top. A white, juicy chicken breast plumper than a thundercloud and lightly breaded was framed by succulent-looking linguini in white bechamel, whose traces of thyme and especially nutmeg were a source of celebration.
The one disappointment, however, was the house salad that accompanied the entrées. Then again, most top-flight Italian eateries seem to have a problem with creating house salads that don’t appear merely tossed off. What’s supposed to stimulate the appetite instead lowers expectations. Though fresh, Portofino’s consisted merely of crunchy iceberg and leafy romaine lettuce, a single bell pepper slice, a tomato wedge as a sidecar, and a thin layer of what tasted like Thousand Island dressing with barely a hint of seasoning. But, hey, you wouldn’t jump through hoops just for a salad — any salad — right? The rest makes Portofino worth rediscovering.
Tortellini gratinati $10.50
Vegetable alla griglia $11.50
Pollo Vesuvio $13.50