Playin’ it cool at the ’Fino

Portofino feels like a neighborhood restaurant without any trace of characteristic local flavor. It doesn’t quite have the hearty Italian-American zest of Wooster Square, but it’s more sophisticated than a typical family eatery and not quite as schmancy as some other New Haven gems (including its sleek neighbor, Dolci).

Instead of capturing a sense of its neighborhood, Portofino follows the tried and true recipe for a “nice Italian place” in an up-and-coming area, and it works. The restaurant serves up all the traditional Italian fare you’ve come to expect, with nightly specials that up the ante of their daily menu. The antipasti cater primarily to seafood lovers with shrimp cocktail, a signature oyster platter and three calamari options (who knew you could do squid so many ways?). Portofino also includes vegetarian selections, such as Portobello mushroom stuffed with spinach and ricotta, or a surprisingly tender eggplant rollatini full of creamy ricotta cheese. A fresh garden salad course also comes standard with entrees.

The main platters are similarly unsurprising, except in their exceptional consistency. Alongside Italian wedding soup and the standby spaghetti and meatballs, Portofino features traditional but slightly less ubiquitous dishes, such as gnocchi caprese and veal alla campagna. The same is true of the dessert menu and wine list, which respectively boast red velvet cake and not one but two Shiraz options by the glass. When Portofino does stray from the typical culinary staples, it’s never too far. The chefs may tend to play it safe, but customers looking for a hearty meal will never be sorry.

The primary flaw with the dining experience at Portofino is the uninspired décor. The muted, pinkish-beige wall color in the central dining room is entirely underwhelming, and last weekend’s cheesy Valentine’s Day decorations — replete with stickers on mirrors and fluffy red tulle — only served to make the area feel more like a kindergarten classroom than a place for a classy date. Fortunately, the holiday has passed and both the glass-paned atrium to the side of the restaurant and the smaller, more private room at the front promise a more stylish setting for Italian comfort food and intimate conversation.

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