It happens from time to time that a newcomer to town, usually from one of the Atlantic states, will ask if there is a really good Italian restaurant in the area.
The type of place that most of these questioners have in mind when they say "really good" is one that is formal, elegant and expensive and, preferably, specializes in Northern Italian cooking.
Yes, we have several restaurants that fit this description quite nicely, most of them established for at least several years. Almost all of them are within a few blocks of Mission Bay or the ocean, which means a drive for inland dwellers.
Portofino, the chic hideaway in Encinitas, may be the current contender for leadership of this rather select pack.
It certainly is the best looking of the county's upper level Italian eateries. Designed in an understated way that implies exclusivity, the place from the outside looks more like a private club than a restaurant; only a small plaque, placed next to a narrow door set in an otherwise blank wall, announces that Portofino occupies the premises.
But once inside, guests discover that that blank wall shelters not only an unusually attractive dining room, but a garden that probably is the most comfortable outdoor eating spot in the county. A tented roof (open just in a distant corner to allow a breath of wind and a glimpse of the stars) presently protects diners from the elements, and heaters make the area quite as habitable as the indoor room. Most nights find a guitarist strumming and singing in a corner of the garden.
The great advantage of the indoor room is that it houses the buffet table that bears, in the true Italian luxury restaurant style, the "espozizione d'antipasti," or display of the evening's hors d'oeuvres. Serving dishes are full to the brim with a changing assortment of highly seasoned items, which sometimes includes piles of tiny clams and garlicky mussels but always can be counted upon to offer various marinated vegetables. A small amount of each is included on the antipasto plate, and it makes just about the best introduction imaginable to a dish of Portofino's pasta or veal.
The care lavished upon each individual offering makes the antipasti especially attractive. A recent plate included olives and pickled button mushrooms as minor notes, but progressed rapidly up the scale with such stylish offerings as grilled oyster mushrooms in pepper, parsley and olive oil, and a layer of fresh basil leaves sandwiched between a round of creamy mozzarella and a slice of ripe tomato. Mounds of grilled zucchini strips layered with shavings of Parmesan, grilled eggplant mellowed in oil, and mixed, roasted peppers finished the plate.
There are numerous other ways to start a meal, of course, although perhaps none quite so delightful. Alternatives would be the handsome romaine salad, dressed rather daringly for an Italian salad not only with oil and vinegar but with oregano and snippets of basil. Both of the restaurant's shrimp specialties-- gamberoni imperiale and fradiavolo-- can be ordered as appetizers, but since a portion in this case includes only two shrimp and is priced at $6.50, it is as well to choose something else, perhaps the long-simmered, wonderfully earthy minestrone.
The pasta list is rather distinguished in its way, offering unusual specialties as well as house versions of such common dishes as fettuccine alfredo (this one includes shallots and ham, and a case might be made that no matter how good it may taste, it should not be called alfredo). The angel hair pasta in filetto di pomodoro-- the Northern version of marinara, concocted from fresh tomatoes and basil cooked as briefly as possible--is interesting just by virtue of its presence on a local menu; more savory, perhaps, are stuffed tortelloni in a sage-flavored cream sauce, and chef's fettuccine, which marries fresh and cured meats with seasonings, fresh tomatoes and cream. Paglia e fieno alla zingarella (literally "straw and hay in the style of the Gypsy's wife") combines regular and spinach noodles with ham, shallots, crumbled sausages, minced peppers, Italian-style bacon and tomato sauce. The effect is rich, exotic and quite satisfying.