By New Times
By Robrt L. Pela
By Lauren Saria and Heather Hoch
By Deborah Sussman
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch
From sports to the creative arts to big business, it's the ability to perform under pressure that separates the professionals from the amateurs. Yet it's also been proven that without pressure, performance can often flag.
If that theory holds true in the restaurant business, Caffe Portobello offers an excellent case study. This is a tale of two restaurants: a Caffe Portobello that when its kitchen is overwhelmed, soars; and a Caffe Portobello that when it's got time on its hands, gets up to no good.
At least that's the excuse I'm willing to craft for this Italian place, in an effort to explain why dining here is such a schizophrenic experience. From service to sustenance, Caffe Portobello has a real Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde personality.
10401 N. McDowell Mountain Ranch
Scottsdale, AZ 85255
Region: North Scottsdale
Spaghetti and meatballs: $9.95
Penne with sausage: $11.95
Chicken Parmigiana: $13.95
Spinach ravioli: $13.95
Hours: Lunch, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. daily.
Caffe Portobello isn't entirely new -- it got its start almost four years ago as a homey little pasta shop catering to Cave Creek locals. Under the care of mama chef Rosetta Scirpo, the bistro became a popular stop for Sicilian comfort food like spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna.
Enter Rosetta's son Franco. Fresh off the New York runway as a model for Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani, Franco sidelined a trip to L.A. to become an actor to instead visit mom in Arizona. Seeing how well her little store was doing, he convinced her to take it bigger time, then he gave up the glittery life to push pasta in Scottsdale. The restaurant was relocated this spring to larger, tonier digs in McDowell Mountain Ranch, complete with a gorgeous bar split between the restaurant and an open patio overlooking the foothills. The result is a hybrid of both Scirpo visions -- a glitzy package, yet the same no-fuss cuisine of the earlier address. In a nod to its new ZIP code, Harry Grow has been retained as co-executive chef, coming from cooking jobs at the Camelback Inn and the Golden Swan at Hyatt Gainey. It's Grow who periodically gooses the menu with more trendy nightly specials, like herb-encrusted rack of lamb or New York strip stuffed with crab and tomato relish.
Lots of people seem to like the cafe's new blend. The granite-topped bar has become the place for the secluded area's young and beautiful to mingle. At the same time, Caffe Portobello has attracted the neighborhood's new parents, moneyed folk saddled with children who still want to enjoy the finer things in life. It makes for interesting entertainment, mixing well-dressed guests supping on shrimp scampi with harried parents minding toddlers bent on hurling macaroni and cheese.
Add in live music, featuring songs made popular by Frank Sinatra, Fats Domino, James Taylor, or, for one evening's wedding party, a group of mariachis, and the place can get loud. The noise bounces off polished concrete floors, echoes off mustard-colored walls, and splashes into an elegant mural of a rustic European map. It also resonates from a big-screen TV that's flipped on when the music stops. Escaping the din and the shrill whoops of hyper rug rats is easy, though. Just sit on the patio. Here, the soft, sultry shadows of the McDowell Mountains open up to a blanket of stars.
There's no predicting service at Caffe Portobello -- it's torn between the casual style of the menu, and the classier flair of the ambiance.
A slow evening secures us a comfortable booth, with quick, polite treatment. A busy evening leaves us stranded, however, taking a numbing three hours to work our way through appetizers and entrees. A mid-busy evening, meanwhile, offers a bit of both, with friendly yet sporadic attention (empty ice tea glasses are pushed to the very edge of the table, but sit ignored throughout the meal).
The restaurant did have its hands full one night, playing to a 100-person wedding reception as well as a packed house of regular guests. The frenzy of the kitchen is visible through exposition windows, and even the chef is flitting between sizzling pans and sprinting out to serve plates to tables. Busy or not, it's still silly to endure a 15-minute wait for seating that, as we wait by the crowded bar, turns out to be the empty table we've been resting our drinks on the whole time (it takes a quarter-hour to plop down napkins and silverware?). We're never presented a wine list, or for that matter, wine. In fact, my dining companion finally gives up and goes to the bar to cart back drinks himself. And no server should need to be flagged down to take entree orders, only to respond that she thought we had come in just for appetizers (huh?).
The cooking crew has got to be operating on that pressure-performance philosophy. That's the only thing that explains how on the most chaotic of nights, the food is terrific. Yet when things slow down, the kitchen presents us with food barely a step above average. And when things are distinctly quiet, the food leans towards mediocre, sometimes collapsing into awful.
Meals start with fresh warm bread, the fluffy, crusty loaves crafted by Arizona Bread Company. Thick slices are great when torn and dipped into herbed olive oil, but save some for sopping up soup. Scirpo's from-scratch concoctions are a luxury, perhaps a du jour offering of rich tomato leek, or the house specialty of minestrone. This soup soaks deep down to the soul, the marvelous broth chock-full with tender carrot, celery, squash, kidney beans, greens and potato.