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Family Feast

Italian staples soothe in rural Varina

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This is Portabella’s Ristorante, one of three restaurants in Richmond’s East End owned by the Evola family. Proprietor Cesare Evola hails from Carini, Italy, where he helped his father make pizzas in their “casual yet formal” establishment, Bar Centrale. In 1979, he came to the States and has since owned and operated 10 restaurants, with Portabella’s his latest.

There’s a strong sense of community here, with plenty of locals enjoying Italian comfort food such as Portabella’s homemade baked lasagna ($8.75) with layers of doughy pasta sheets, tangy meat sauce and a mass of melted cheese on top. It’s a real bargain and just as good for lunch the following day. A sampler platter appetizer ($6) is an even better deal, with deep-fried goodness at every turn. Freshly battered mushrooms and crunchy onion rings are paired with (what appear to be) frozen cheese sticks and Cheez Whiz-filled jalapeno poppers. The ubiquitous marinara made an appearance as an OK dipping sauce (it’s a bit on the sugary side — think pizza sauce).

Beyond the marinara-fueled entrees, a linguini with white clam sauce ($9.25) was a pleaser with plenty of freshly chopped clams, haphazard chunks of fresh garlic and just the right hint of wine-infused olive oil. The linguini arrived al dente with several strands stuck together en masse, making the texture of the dish a bit tacky. Tortellini ala Panna ($9.25) arrived in a thick parmigiana cream sauce dotted with deli-style ham pieces and fresh mushrooms; it’s good if you like it heavy. Ground-meat-filled tortellini and a heavy cream sauce simply ooze the words “weight gain.”

The Veal ala Cesare ($13) is a lighter option, with veal slices pounded thin and lightly tossed in a red win-based sauce reminiscent of a traditional Espagnole base, a brown sauce that pairs beautifully with most meats. Served with a side of decidedly average spaghetti and marinara, it’s a nice option to some of the heavier dishes.

And you can’t have an Italian joint without pizzas. Portabella’s serves up an array of hand-tossed and Sicilian-style pizzas. The 16-inch traditional combo hand-tossed pizza comes with pepperoni, ground sausage, fresh mushrooms, green peppers, onions and black olives. Covered in melted mozzarella, it almost hit the mark. Another five minutes in the oven (some of the cheese was not quite melted) was required, and the crust was unusually soggy. It’s an unfortunate irony, but the use of so many fresh vegetables (which exude a considerable amount of water when cooked down) produced a sodden crust. Eating a slice without a knife and fork was impossible, a real disappointment for those who like to fold and eat their pizza by hand.

Desserts include traditional cannolis, spumoni (Italian-style ice cream), cheesecakes and a homemade tiramisu ($3.75) from an old family recipe. In a nutshell, this classic combination of ladyfingers doused in espresso and layered with sugar-laden marscapone cheese arrived frozen solid. I could tell there was something special going on underneath all that ice, so we sent it back (egad!) to the microwave. It returned in the same state. The server offered to nuke it one more time. Gastronomic blasphemy. We finally sent it to its final resting place, but it rose from the grave to reappear on our bill.

A few hits and misses won’t affect Portabella’s success. The place has a strong following, and it’s packed both for lunch and dinner. And as one of the few Italian hangouts in the area, its position on Varina’s culinary map will, most likely, remain certain. S

Portabella’s Ristorante ($)
2627 New Market Road
795-4144
Lunch and dinner: Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Closed Monday


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