Rookie of the Year

Under new management, Portofino shows real promise in the fiercely competitive Italian division.

Portofino 12214 Pearl Road, Strongsville 440-572-3466; 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Tony Cioletti, Portofino's genial - software-exec-turned-host. - Walter  Novak
Tony Cioletti, Portofino's genial software-exec-turned-host.
Businessman Tony Cioletti liked his favorite Italian restaurant so much, he bought it. Now Cioletti, himself a descendant of chefs and caterers, gets to immerse himself nightly in a world of white linens, fine wines, and savory dishes at Strongsville's Portofino.

The Oracle software exec added "restaurateur" to his résumé in March, when he purchased the 12-year-old dining room from founder Carmela Delbusso. Since then, he's approached the biz with both passion and acumen, working on upgrading service and expanding both the menu and the wine list, with the long-term goal of making the spot one of the best Italian fine-dining venues in the region.

Of course, in a city where you can't swing a pizza box without hitting a pretty good ristorante, osteria, or trattoria, successfully beating up on the competition can get a little dicey. Equally tough is pulling off the "destination dining" thing when that destination is located toward the rear of a little strip plaza in the suburbs. And for a final hurdle, consider that although Portofino's menu prices don't approach those of elegant salons like Johnny's Downtown or Giovanni's, it's not a cheap date, either: Dinner for two, with wine, tax, and tip, can easily pass the $100 mark.

Still, in his pursuit of excellence, Cioletti has a major ally in the person of Executive Chef Greg Gibel, who has been in Portofino's kitchen from the beginning. Of course, the chef has long since mastered the basics: His homemade pastas practically snap with elasticity, his grilled meats are seriously savory, and whether we're talking about heirloom tomatoes, mashed potatoes, or summer's last zucchini, he handles veggies with intelligence and respect.

But the chef's biggest strength may lie in his capacity to layer flavors so precisely they could balance on the edge of a knife. Take the scampi Fra Diavolo, one night's appetizer special, for example. Bathed in a shallow pool of spicy tomato sauce, the plump white shrimp -- sautéed with garlic and Italian chile peppers -- were truly toothsome morsels, free of even the slightest hint of fishiness and succulent almost beyond belief. But the zinger, quite literally, was in the sauce, a poignantly peppery chorus of sweet, hot, and buttery sensations, so irresistibly fine-tuned that, even as tears blurred our vision, we couldn't stop eating. (A similar dish, fettuccine Fra Diavolo, hit many of the same gustatory buttons, with its combo of firm, fresh pasta noodles, pepperoncini-spiked sauce, and smaller but still well-prepared shrimp.)

Obviously, this is a chef who digs playing with fire, and he did it again in the evening's salad special, a colorful toss of coarsely chopped red and yellow tomatoes, sliced red onion, and paper-thin disks of fiery jalapeños, dressed in a light, aromatic vinaigrette and tweaked with a touch of oregano. In the vigorous, well-matched competition between the pepper's heat and the fruit's slightly acidic sweetness, the undisputed winner was our palate.

Of course, it's not all about the hot stuff; Gibel has the chops when it comes to less fiery flavors, too. Take, for example, his version of saltimbocca.

Italians, more than most, have a propensity for giving their foods endearing little names. The name for cup-shaped pasta, orecchiette, for example, means "little ears," and coffee-laced tiramisu translates as "pick me up." But while saltimbocca's literal meaning is "jump mouth," most versions we've sampled have seemed shockingly inert. Gibel's rendition -- thinly pounded, pan-sautéed veal medallions, topped with dusky Parma ham, melted mozzarella, a scant drizzle of reduced pan juices, and plenty of fresh, chopped sage -- is a supercharged sensation that not only jumps, but kicks, twirls, and pirouettes with flavor.

The kitchen pairs delicate veal and feisty prosciutto again in the delicious lombata alla Portofino, an impressively thick, notably tender, long-boned grilled veal chop with a silken cognac-cream sauce seasoned with porcini mushrooms, prosciutto, garlic, and fresh rosemary (perhaps just a little too much fresh rosemary, but that's a minor issue). Similarly, bistecca alla Fiorentino -- a robust, bone-in rib-eye, marinated in rosemary-infused olive oil, with a fine, smoky fragrance from the grill -- packed as powerful a flavor punch as any downtown heavyweight.

A meal at Portofino begins with a basket of slices of freshly baked ciabatta and slabs of finely crumbed focaccia. On a weeknight, the bread was sided with a saucer of unremarkable olive oil; a splash of balsamic, a sprinkle of cheese, or a dash of fresh herbs could have made a flavorful difference. On the following Friday, though, a ramekin of perky sun-dried tomato tapenade became the olive oil's more interesting stand-in. Regardless of the go-with, though, be certain to keep a slice or two of the homemade bread in reserve for sopping up the sassy dressings and sauces as the meal proceeds.

Saltimbocca, veal chop, and rib-eye arrived at the table neatly plated with a swirl of buttery mashed potatoes, slightly caramelized sliced carrots, and a toss of well-seasoned summer squash. Salads, however, are à la carte. The mixed-greens house salad was large enough for two, and the kitchen graciously split it for us before serving; however, its balsamic vinaigrette was almost painfully sharp, and the scattering of "caramelized" walnuts simply didn't add enough contrapuntal sweetness to bring the dressing into balance.

Gibel could also add a flourish of luxe to many of his dishes by finishing them with a touch of sea salt. We rarely find ourselves reaching for a salt shaker when dining on food of this caliber, but we did on several occasions at Portofino -- not to compensate for flavor that wasn't there, but to fully unlock the layers of flavors that Gibel had installed through the use of herbs and spices. And how much nicer it would have been to have that done for us in the kitchen with a top-quality product, rather than having to add plain table salt in the dining room.

To drink, the restaurant has a well-stocked bar and the beginnings of a solid wine list, with an emphasis on Italian and West Coast boutique wines. At present, the list includes a small array of reds and whites by the glass, but no half-bottle selections. And although the wine menu is arranged by varietal, none of the listings include vintages, a few of them don't include regions, and there are no tasting notes or food-and-wine-pairing suggestions to help guide potential imbibers.

Homemade desserts include cannoli, crème brûlée, ganache-draped profiteroles filled with lemon custard, and a rich crème-caramel-like chocolate custard, drizzled with Grand Marnier and topped with homemade whipped cream; we can vouch that the final two sweeties, at least, were ample enough for sharing, but so good that we would have preferred not to.

But if Portofino's cuisine is above average and the wine cellar shows potential, service remains a relative weakness. Cioletti makes a charming host, and the octagonal dining room is well appointed, dimly lit, and handsome. But during a rainy weeknight, when no more than a handful of tables were filled, our waitress seemed overwhelmed and flustered, forgetting to bring bread and almost pouring our Zardetto Prosecco ($22, in the "end of the bin" section of the wine menu) into red wine glasses before realizing that flutes were needed. Water glasses went unfilled, emptied plates lingered too long, the table was never crumbed, and 45 hungry minutes elapsed from the time we sat down until our apps finally arrived.

A Friday-night server, in contrast, was polished and professional, but pacing was still painfully slow. While bread and tapenade appeared within minutes of our arrival, it was again more than half an hour before the first course appeared. (In a follow-up phone conversation, Cioletti acknowledged the slow pacing and explained that a sous chef had gone AWOL earlier that week, leaving Gibel alone. Hopefully, the kitchen will be fully staffed by the time you read this.)

Despite the rough spots, though, Portofino under Cioletti's guidance has plenty of potential. Give the guy another six months, and he may very well have a top-notch restaurant on his hands. And in another year? Even if it's not quite the best fine-dining Italian spot in the region, Portofino should be very good indeed.

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