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.
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.
The same evening delivers a stunning antipasto platter, layered with mounds of prosciutto, mozzarella and tomatoes. Imported Italian ham comes in crepe-thin sheets, salty and mildly marbled on its edges, then splayed with rounds of pleasantly rubbery cheese and juicy fruit. In the center the field greens are moistened with a light balsamic vinaigrette over a gentle dusting of rock salt.
Given the greens, I ask our waitress to substitute caesar salad for the house salad that comes with dinners. And though she's literally running from table to table on this hectic night, she's happy to oblige (additional cost, natch), even splitting the full-size order in the kitchen for my companion and me. The romaine has been lovingly selected, with crisp leaves in a blissfully delicate dressing with dainty croutons and flurries of shaved Parmesan.
I'm pushing my luck, and ask for a special sauce on the pasta that comes with my chicken Parmigiana. Again, no problem, she smiles. And from the battlefield that is the kitchen, the dish comes out perfect. Lightly breaded breast releases golden juices when cut, and swims under a rich topping of bubbly mozzarella and zesty marinara. A side of penne is anointed as requested in a lovely Arrabiata sauce, thick with chopped tomatoes, basil, olive oil and fiery hot red pepper, which is key to this particular sauce.
Scirpo's marinara is robust, also thick with tomato and pepper. The piquant blend sparkles on spaghetti, crowning already topnotch meatballs. It finishes the gently bitter eggplant Parmigiana, and binds thickly layered lasagna. And it adds soupy satisfaction to penne with Italian sausage, the fat link crisp-cased, crumbly and bursting with fresh herbs.
Another evening finds the restaurant playing to a room perhaps a third full -- and the kitchen's energy matches it. Dinner tonight is pleasant, if not remarkable. Focaccia topped with artichokes and fontina is a fine appetizer. A starter of roasted bell peppers is unexciting but inoffensive, the strips adorned with extra virgin olive oil and garlic.
But entrees fail to rise above the ordinary during this evening -- veal Marsala is the same as almost any other place in town, presenting two thinly pounded cutlets ladled in mushroom-and-wine gravy, situated over sliced tomato, zucchini, squash and purple onion. A bed of orzo is actually two matchbox-size squares of pressed, moist grains that make me think of plump pilaf.
Salmon isn't as ordered -- the menu regular of pan-seared fish capped with spinach in a Parmesan cup, with port honey reduction sauce. It shows up instead as that night's special, prepared teriyaki style. Either way, it's a tiny parceling of flaky fish, nondescript under its sweet Asian glaze and paired with slivers of zucchini and squash plus nicely creamy au gratins.
When Caffe Portobello is almost empty, the spirit evaporates from the kitchen like boiling water on a hot stove. On this evening, execution is indifferent and lifeless, with food approaching dismal. An appetizer of calamari sautéed in butter, olive oil and garlic is so off-flavored and fishy tasting that we send it back. The waitress returns, informing us that the chef "says it looks and smells fine" (though apparently he refrains from tasting it) but does offer to remove it from the bill.
What should be a signature starter for a restaurant called Caffe Portobello arrives flawed, the portabella mushroom too soft and marinated in too much balsamic. Partners of cremini mushrooms and corn-bread textured roasted garlic polenta are worthy, but a "chef's house sauce" of rosa (white and red blended) doesn't belong in this dish at all.
Fettuccine Alfredo is truly dull, with a lackluster creamy sauce capped by a choice of chicken breast or vegetables. Spinach ravioli comes to the table inexplicably dotted with errant bits of spaghetti noodles, the pale-green pillows stuffed with lots of good ricotta, but overcooked until tough. A meatball alongside is salty and a topping of rosa sauce is even saltier, to the point of being inedible.
A closer of tiramisu shuts it all down. There's nothing wrong with the taste of this dessert, except it's really just overpriced cake, humiliated under drifts of whipped cream and drizzles of chocolate syrup.
Real passion feeds off energy, and when this kitchen is cranking, I can feel the love. Without it, however, there's no point feeding ourselves at Caffe Portobello.
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