Thursday, April 3, 2008

Strip Mall Parmigiana (Porto Bello, 43-18 Ditmars Boulevard)

It likely would have taken us a lot longer to discover Porto Bello (the Pretty Door?) were it not for Leo, the diminutive Italian barber on 21st Avenue that one of us goes to now and then for a haircut. Leo has been practicing his trade in Astoria since well before either of us were born, back when the neighborhood was much more Italian than it is now. Figuring he'd be able to sort out which was the best of the many old-school Italian restaurants in the area, we asked him what his favorite Italian restaurant was. He recommended not one of the storied (and possibly mobbed up) places, but Porto Bello, a relatively new restaurant in the shopping center on Ditmars at 48th street.

It's not what we would have expected. Because it's in a strip mall and has a parking lot, Porto Bello is like something out of suburbia, the kind of run-of-the-mill pizza restaurant you'd find in any small town as a staple option. It would be easy to lump Porto Bello (Port-O-Bello on the shopping center's sign) in with those often-unimaginative places and expect mediocrity. Perhaps aware of this, though, it seems to work harder, making none of the little mistakes that can creep in when expectations are low.

Porto Bello is larger than you'd expect inside, and this helps make it seem like more than a glorified pizzeria. The uniformed waiters help too, though ours -- lumbering, bulky, and brusque, yet not at all incompetent -- seemed like a moonlighting high-school football player. We asked for recommendations, as usual, and he was a little too generous, naming so many different dishes that he may as well have used the time-honored cop-out and said, "They are all good."

But that said, everything we tried was good. How Porto Bello executed the typically humdrum chicken parmigiana was indicative. There was nothing adventurous about it; it was just well done. The dish was made not from a prebreaded cutlet but instead a chicken breast lightly coated with a fresh layer of peppery bread crumbs, supplying texture without giving the grease somewhere to collect when the meat was fried. Mozzarella cheese was not piled on indiscriminately, but was applied with a knowing artistry, to complement rather than overwhelm. The marinara sauce was rich and flavorful without being too acidic, sweet or lumpy. And the pasta was properly cooked; it wasn't limp or waterlogged, and the portion was not wasteful. All and all, an unimaginative plate of comfort food was made entirely respectable. Our pasta dish, the Rigatoni Fiorentina (Porto Bello's most popular entree), was similarly pleasing. Tender chicken, spinach, and mozzarella in a creamy pink sauce, much like a vodka sauce (we can't be sure if there was any Finlandia action happening backstage), was perfectly sweet-savory, and filling without being belly-achingly heavy.

With Astoria's depleted Italian contingent, it's easy to stick to the standbys: Trattoria l'Incontro, Piccolo Venezia, and the like. But Porto Bello shows that a restaurant doesn't have to have known the neighborhood way back when to get it right.

Price: Reasonable. Good value for quality.
Will we go again? Yes, and we'll feel smug the whole time that we're getting a good meal in a strip mall.

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