Ah, La Bella Italia. I’ve been many times, and always come home heavier. Sitting down at Portofino felt like stepping into a homey trattoria somewhere off the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca. Servers greet you with glasses of prosecco, a plate of house-baked bread, crusty and warm, surrounded by dishes of olive tapenade, tomato sauce and roasted garlic cloves, an inspired authentic touch.
After having the specials displayed for us by a smiling waiter and being greeted by the amiable owner, we opened with a gorgonzola salad (VND175,000), the salumi e formaggi plate (VND310,000) and a bottle of San Pellegrino (VND100,000) before getting down to the serious business of ordering entrées.
The specials board proved compelling. From it, I ordered braised beef cheeks (a personal favourite, and a steal at VND395,000) and my date ordered cioppino (VND300,000). We sat in to wait, and played with the complimentary pane e prosecco.
Every Dish a Journey, Every Bite Bliss
Then the appetizers arrived. The salad towered, a pile of lightly-dressed arugula, lettuce, gorgonzola and more. The cold cuts board half-covered the table, crowned with salami, mortadella, prosciutto, Parmesan, gorgonzola, olives, grapes and a terrific chilli jam. This could have been a meal in itself, but we went for more.
The cioppino teemed with crab, shrimp, scallops, mussels and fish in savoury tomato stew. The beef cheeks split under my fork; I had to have each bite with the creamy, smooth Parmesan polenta and red wine reduction.
We struggled only due to the size limitations of the human stomach. Every crumb of food tasted beautiful.
After clearing that mountainous dinner, restaurateur Tony Fox breezed by, asking if we wanted dessert. He laughed at our expressions, and agreed to “surprise us”.
He did. The bombolini (to call them pillows of filo dough with whipped and raspberry jam does them no justice) was a butter-fat bliss, and the chocolate marquise (made with Valrhona chocolate,) topped by crème Anglaise and strawberries, complemented it perfectly.
We ended with a digestivo of homemade limoncello, and that fragrant bite reminded me of a trip to Naples, buying a bottle of the local liquor from a lemon orchard.
That Personal Touch
One of the most interesting parts of the night was interacting with the owner, something I don’t normally do. Tony Fox, veteran of Saffron, Ciao Bella and other restaurants, charmed and smiled, telling unprompted stories of working with famous chefs in New York. His enthusiasm crackled as he greeted customers, communicating itself to kitchen and wait staff.
People seemed happy to work there. Food arrived at perfect intervals, and no one rushed us to leave as we toyed with dessert. The service clicked along so well I left a decent-sized tip, something I don’t always do.
A Labour of Love
Rather than talk decor, I’d prefer to talk ambience. The owner bustled from table to table, servers moved with purpose and joy, and I felt Portofino showed the passion of a man who has found his niche. So yes, the obligatory photos of Italy are nice, as are the mirrors, and the aged brickwork looks a century old. It’s pretty, but what makes it unforgettable are the people.
I’ve dined at high-toned locales before, yet I often find my most deeply satisfying meals are at locations like Portofino. It aims to provide high-quality food in comfort, not an experience. And for the price... well, I’d rather pay VND1.3 million and know I’ll enjoy the food, than VND5 million and wonder what I’m eating. Portofino does provide an experience. However, it shows you what a labour of love looks like. To me, it looked and tasted remarkable.
Portofino is located at 15 Dong Du, Q1, HCMC
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals