In 1992, fresh out of the Culinary Institute Amerigo Vespucci in Milano, Italy, Roberto Gulizia took a job working for some local restaurateurs. Then, 15 years ago, he opened a little Italian place on South Virginia across from the Peppermill. Five years ago, Mario’s Portofino moved to the South Virginia Plaza across the parking lot from The Polo Lounge. He’s made this pasta palace a Reno mainstay.
Veteran barkeep Richard Kuchenbecker welcomes you to a comfortable room with a full bar, two dining rooms with a warm, Tuscan décor, linen tablecloths and napkins, and the friendliest wait staff in town.
It’s a traditional Italian menu with plenty of originals. The stuffed fig ($10.95) caught my eye almost immediately, and what a good start it was. This fresh fruit, the size of an egg, is as old as time and was used through the centuries as a sweetener. The fruit was pealed, opened like a flower, and stuffed with a blend of Mascarpone cheese, lemon zest, a little salt and pepper then wrapped with prosciutto and served with a kalamata olive, tomato, and glazed with a balsamic reduction.
The fruit from the fig getting a ride from the texture of the cheese, salt from the Prosciutto, and as it passes over the tongue, a citrus lift from the lemon zest, and poof, it’s gone.
For the main course, I had the 10-ounce fillet with another balsamic reduction ($26.95). Balsamic vinegar is made from the Trebbiano grape, the second most widely planted grape in the world. This grape has high acidity and is also used in cognac production, but for the vinegar, it’s aged in wood casks for up to 20 years yielding a dark, sweet-tart flavor.
The steak is pan-seared to lock in the juices, and the flavor is centered on the reduction. That’s why the meat’s not grilled. The reduction is made from the rendering of the meat, a pad of butter, a splash of heavy cream, the vinegar, and some simple spices. This almost syrup-like sauce melds with every bite of the steak creating a flavor profile of sweet-tart with savory and just the right amount of salt creating a sensational mouth-watering mangiare.
The included sides, house-made fusilli pasta (cork screw) with a simple pesto sauce and seasonal vegetables topped with fresh, grated-at-your-table Parmesan cheese. They wouldn’t let me pass up dessert, so I had Dolce al Cocco ($6), a creamy, New York-style cheese cake laced with coconut, a Mona Lisa finish if there ever was one.
Portofino has a decent by-the-glass selection. Since there was so much going on with the food, I wanted something to stand up to the meat but not overwhelm the myriad of flavors this meal offered. Yes, Italian sounded logical, but being adventurous, I found a Paisaje de Tupungato ($9) from Mendoza, a region high the mountains of Argentina.
I appreciate blends, and this is a subtle combination of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and merlot, matured in French and American oak barrels for 12 months, and bottle-aged for a another six months. Plum, dark cherries, a little cinnamon, slight earthiness, and spice on the nose helps bring out the fruit in this wine. This blend of Bordeaux grapes with the South American treatment was full-bodied enough and finished with a dry, light mineral quality, characteristic of South American wines, truly complementing the food. Portofino is a spectacular place to visit in Italy and a great place to eat in Reno.