Spaghetti & Shrimp Carbonara with pancetta cream sauce… (Algerina Perna/Baltimore…)
Portalli's is a pretty lovable Italian restaurant in the Ellicott City location where Jordan's Steakhouse was. I like very much that the folks who opened it have stated their intentions clearly on the restaurant's Web page: "The goal was to create a restaurant that has as much appeal for families looking for a night on the town as it does for the most critical foodies, and the end result is a restaurant everybody can enjoy." Even better, I like that they had a plan in the first place.
Do they achieve that goal at every moment and with every dish? They came close enough when I visited to make me believe that they're working hard every night to put their words into action.
A good start is the menu, where among the appetizers, entrees and sides you'll see not only lasagna Bolognese, chicken piccata, and spaghetti and meatballs, but also duck confit manicotti, slow-roasted pork belly and celery-and-cauliflower risotto. Some of these dishes are described, at the table, as American versions of Italian classics, which makes sense enough. What wasn't entirely conveyed was that Portalli's portions and prices have been calibrated small enough to encourage diners to make a traditional, Italian-style, four-course meal. The portions aren't really all that small, though, and the prices seem just, well, reasonable.
The chef here is Keith Holsey, and you can feel his presence on the high and low ends. He seems as interested in the meatballs, homemade here from veal and beef, as he does in the pork belly, to which he applies a subtle blood-orange glaze.
Appetizers such as bruschetta and calamari, so often handled perfunctorily, get some love here - a ripping balsamic glaze supports freshly toasted crostini, topped smartly with a mix of cannellini beans, fresh herbs and, not usefully, chopped out-of-season tomatoes. Calamari works by being breaded, with semolina, and fried so nicely that the white squid beneath is translucently visible. A carpaccio appetizer tastes convincingly of the advertised filet mignon and is dressed in an arousing mix of capers, shallots, arugula and lemon olive oil.
Pastas dishes grow on you. The lasagna Bolognese here might not be a passionate thrill ride of heat and spice, but it's ultimately more admirable for the efficient engineering that allows good and simple ingredients to work together. It feels like food for adults. Portalli's lists a "seasonal gnocchi," a great idea that will no doubt pay off when there are better things than peppers to play with. The gnocchi themselves are feather-light, but the evening's bland red pepper sauce was a decided nonstarter. Celery and cauliflower aren't fully integrated into a side serving of risotto; instead they seem extraneous, not to mention unhandsomely pale.
I enjoyed that flavorful pork belly, served with broccoli raab and roasted cherry tomatoes. At the table, though, the dish looks a little undecided between rustic and foodie, like someone wearing overalls with a cummerbund.
Monkfish osso buco is a fairly ambitious dish, and Holsey dresses his with a credible gremolata and supplements it with a commendable salad of shaved asparagus and fennel. At its best, monkfish is said to achieve a lobsterlike texture and flavor, but it's playing the role of veal in an osso buco as much for its central bone. There's a risk - when the bone is left in, the texture can occasionally turn too cartilaginous and sinewy. That's what we thought happened with our monkfish, about half of which we left on the plate to be cleared away.
A sharp busboy not only noticed this but took the initiative to ask us about it and relay our misgivings to the management. Soon, the owner came by the table, apologized and offered to make us another one. We accepted, and it was delivered to us in person by the chef himself. We were dazzled less by the second monkfish (which was truly better - delicious, really) than by how gracefully the whole thing was handled.
Dessert is worth lingering for. A pear napoleon assembled from phyllo dough is the standout. The tiramisu here is the kind that's more like pudding than cake, and divided the table into cake and cream camps. An unconstructed and unheated version of s'mores works as guilty pleasure.
My only real concern is with the atmosphere - is it homey or homely? Something like cheap flatware is negligible, but you might actually recoil when you first see the main dining room upstairs, which looks when filled up like the steerage dining scenes from "Titanic." There are too many tables lined up too squarely, the noise level is oppressive and the pile carpeting is brutal.