A Neighborhood Italian Restaurant That Isn't!
When is a neighborhood Italian restaurant more than a neighborhood Italian restaurant? When people travel from all over the city to eat there. For example, Giorgio Baldi in Pacific Palisades is such a place (although I personally don't go because they are consistently rude to people they don't know.) Another is the popular Peppone's in Brentwood, where Valentino's original chef has reigned for many years. Paolo's charming Osteria Latini on San Vincente is such a destination, and West Hooker's Locanda del Lago on 3rd Street is another. But the ultimate "neighborhood restaurant that isn't" is Locanda Portofino (1110 Montana Avenue, southeast corner of 11th and Montana, Santa Monica, 310/394-2070, valet and street parking). I have been hearing about it from friends and readers for several years. Elaine Newton, Wayne's ex, has been touting it to everyone, and my ex and her husband go there once or twice a week because they love the food and atmosphere. My buddy, Caroline Graham, lives in that neighborhood and eats there several times a week. And it seems to be something of a celebrity haunt; when Reese Witherspoon and agent Jim Toth (now her husband) first dated, People Magazine noted that it was here. Robert Redford all the time, Owen Wilson, Anthony Hopkins, all often mentioned as dining here. Kate Beckinsale and her mom were here last night. Caroline told me that Venice's regal Count Volpe ate lunch here once a week with Dennis Hopper for years.
Somehow I never made it until recently, when I had a Saturday night dinner date with some friends, Amber Renfro Sheikh and Rizwan Sheikh; she is seven months pregnant and wanted to dine close to home, so it was the perfect choice. Was it ever! I ended up leaving and telling the amiable head waiter, Andrea, that I would be back shortly...and quickly returned the following week with Caroline Graham to confirm my first impression. Which was that this is one of the finest, most authentic and romantic eateries in our fair city.
It brings back memories of a favorite trattoria in Rome which my ex and I visited years ago. We ducked into this restaurant when the rains came and the magnificent food started flowing. (I reminded her of a long-ago Italian trip when she ate the same dish for seven nights in a row... spaghetti with basil and oregano. Tempus fugit, her palate has expanded considerably since then. Incidentally, that is now the signature dish at Scott Conant's upscale Montage Hotel Beverly Hills eatery, Scarpetta, where you will see it on almost every table --$24 for a bowl of pasta.) On my first visit to Locanda Portofino, head waiter Andrea greeted me at the door by name, reminding me we had met when he worked at Angelo's wonderful La Bruschetta on Westwood Boulevard. Portofino's website tells how Alberto Ferrari and Florestano Caracciolio di Nicastro opened here in 1995. The former is from Liguria, the northwestern corner of Italy, where Portofino is a popular vacation spot.....and the latter is from Campania in southern Italy, home of Neapolitan food and gateway to Capri. A fascinating mix of southern food and northern truffled cuisine.
This small neighborhood gem is unique in so many ways. Once you pass through the narrow covered patio, you enter a candlelit interior with dark wood accents and many of its 400 wine bottles on display. Maybe twenty tables in all, about 60 seats, with an adjacent semi-private wine tasting/dining room. Yes, it's so Italian romantic. I chose a small table in the far corner and as I was seated I noted a waiter hurrying by with a sizzling platter. "Santa Barbara Prawns," he told me, "Special tonight." "How much," I asked. "Nine dollar apiece," he replied. And I knew what I would be starting my meal with. Andrea smiled when I asked if they had the Spaghetti with Sea Urchin tonight. "Elaine Newton told you about it, right?" Yes, she had, and that was my pasta choice for dinner... a bowl of well-cooked spaghetti with a mild tomato sauce, local sea urchin and cherry tomatoes ($27). As you may discover from reading Yelp's Internet comments, this restaurant is considered rather pricey by L.A. standards, yet I feel it is fairly priced for the quality of the food, service, and ambiance. I noted the two gnocchi dishes on the menu and showed off by throwing out the knowledge that folks in Naples hated to eat potatoes (the food of poor farmers) but loved these little potato/flour morsels. Gnocci alla Sorrentina ($22) is these tidbits with tomato sauce, smoked mozzarella, parmigiano and fresh basil. The Gnocchi al Pesto ($23) is the bits with traditional pesto made with basil, garlic, olive oil and pine nuts. Told the table that pesto sauce originated in Liguria about a hundred years ago.
Riz' Autralian lamb chops ($43), a special this night, were four well-cooked tasty boned chops, one of which I shared. The people at the next table were having the Baked Branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass ($40), which was presented whole to show all and then expertly filleted in the kitchen, serving one hungry diner or suitable for two, served with cooked vegetables. Amber started with the Melanzane all Parmigiana ($18), baked eggplant with tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmigiano and shredded basil, meltingly soft and savory. I ordered the Caprese Salad ($19), fresh mozzarella with tomato, basil, oregano, drizzled with e.v. olive oil (which is excellent here.) A Caesar Salad is $13 and the popular Burrata con Prosciutto was $22. As I said, somewhat pricey but worth every penny. My neighbors were eating a rather unique (for L.A.) appetizer, Alici Fritte, lightly-fried fresh baby sardines ($16), which I made a note of for the future. Every reader reference noted to me that the most popular pasta dish is the Penne with Vodka ($20), a light creamy tomato sauce with shallots and vodka. (You can't taste the vodka.) My preference is the Linguine Positano ($26), linguine (thickened spaghetti) with fresh scallops, rock shrimp, Dungeness crab and rucola in a light tomato sauce. Last night Caroline ordered a delicious off-the-menu pasta, Fagottini, dusted with gorgonzola cheese ($28). A friend told me that she loves the Pollo all Parmigiana ($32), a free-range breaded chicken breast with tomato sauce, mozzarella,, parmigiano and fresh basil.
Many meat and fish dishes on the menu had m.p. (market price) after the description... almost all of the veal (chop, $49), beef, swordfish dishes... which augers well for the restaurant and kind of strange for the diners. And I have noticed that the waiters do not offer prices on the specials unless asked... not my favorite way of operating. But obviously the plethora of regulars here are used to the routine and happily accept it.
For dessert, there are a handful of popular choices... I like the Tartufo, with zabaione cream, chocolate gelato, hazelnut and cocoa powder, and the Ricotta cheesecake. The wine list is full of interesting boutique choices, Italian and domestic, at commensurately steep prices, but hey, it's only money. Brunello di Montalcino is a winner in this regard. I do intend to dine here tomorrow evening and order the m.p. Bistecca ai ferri. a 10-oz. grilled Angus prime New York steak... I know it will be rather costly, but don't doubt it will be delicious. (Editorial follow-up: It was a superb boneless strip steak, cooked slightly beyond rare, served with a potato cake and veggies, for $40. Excellent, but why go to a wonderful authentic Italian eatery for a steak when all those real specialties await you?)
I have been urged by many of the restaurant's regulars not to write this, the first major review ever of the stunning place ("We'll never be able to get a reservation on weekends now"), but my readers' welfare comes first. Call Andrea and mention that you read about it here... it may help.
Locanda Portofino is open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 12:30 pm to 3:00 pm; dinner every from 5:30 pm to 10:30 pm.
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