By Amanda Yskamp
E ditor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do .
My guy, Doug, and I have passed through many doors in the 12 years we've been together, so it was fitting that we would enter the red door of Portelli Rossi to celebrate our anniversary. Located in Novato's old town, Portelli Rossi was formerly known as Kitchen 868, and though it still has the same owner, Henry Hautau, and the same executive chef and managing partner, John Ruggieri, it has changed its style and focus. Which, come to think of it, is a little like me and Doug, who were together before, and now are again in a great, new way that will B-4- evah ! Are you sensing a pattern here? Good.
Portelli Rossi focuses now on Italian food with dishes in a more affordable range than previously offered (most are under $20). In an attempt to broaden their appeal, they even have a menu for the bambini with such whine-stoppers as chicken fingers ($7) and steak and fries ($9). Doug and I went for lunch and didn't bring our own bambini, it being a day to celebrate our just us-ness, and a school day at that, hurrah.
It's cozy and intimate inside with golden walls, a red ceiling, a jumble of modern art and what looked like beer coasters or decals framing the mirrors—but on such a nice day, Doug and I chose to sit on their new brick patio. That seemed to be the place to be, with a view of the foot traffic on Grant, heat lamps for cool evenings and strings of lights.
Nibbling on the home-baked rosemary bread, we broke our adoring gaze just long enough to survey the menu and decide among smoked bacon and white bean soup ($6); mozzarella di buffalo antipasti ($8); fried artichoke salad ($11); prosciutto di parma, formaggi or eggplant panini ($9–$13); or clam linguine ($11/$17).
Displaying his usual good taste and judgment, Doug chose the caesar salad ($9), a carryover from Kitchen 868 days, and no wonder. A lemony anchovy dressing lightly coated long spears of cut romaine, croutons and grana padano ; for actual anchovies, Doug tossed in an extra $1.50. For our second course, I ordered the pancetta-wrapped rock cod ($17), which was slightly salty and crunchy, but moist, on a bed of white beans, chard and capers. Doug went for the ravioli funghi ($16), a full order, which turned out to be only five pockets (pity those who order the half) filled with velvety portabella mushroom and covered in brown butter sage sauce, so good we wished there were more .
With our lunches, I drank an Inzolia ($8), my first time with the delicious Sicilian wine. Doug quaffed a $9 glass of Starry Night Zinfandel. (Did I mention Doug's likeness to Van Gogh, in the artist's two-eared phase, that is?) We traded spoonfuls of our desserts, a classic custardy crème brûlée ($6) for Doug, and, for me, a spicy ginger cake with brandy and butter hard sauce ($7)—their flavors reminiscent of the times we've had together lingered as we went out through the red door and into our 13th year together.
(I promised Doug that, in honor of our anniversary, I would write him a paean in the form of this review, mentioning his name 12 times, one for each glorious year together—and with this, Doug, I have!)
Portelli Rossi, 868 Grant Ave., Novato. Open for lunch, Tuesday–Saturday; dinner, Tuesday–Sunday. 415.892.6100.
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