The main reason to visit Portofino is the water. A river, a boardwalk, a breeze — even when the temperature is 90 degrees, it's cool as you gaze at the wooded tip of Grosse Ile, iced beverage in hand, and watch from the deck as the boats slide by.
Some of them tie up at Portofino's dock; we watched one July weeknight as Tommy Hearns and pals pulled in and ordered a drink. We saw scullers, a women's crew and a mixed one, and freighters; even the infernal roar of the Jet Skis seemed muted.
The real Portofino is an Italian resort town on the Mediterranean, so it's fitting that the Wyandotte Portofino serves both Italian dishes and seafood. Only a few items are in the nachos-and-fried-zucchini-with-ranch-dressing category; most are a cut above. Though many restaurants with a nonfood attraction tend to coast on that and give the food short shrift, Portofino serves some dishes that are truly sublime. And I don't think it's just my blissed-out-on-being-outside-in-the-summer-by-the-river self saying that.
Dinner starts with hot bread and a generous dish of olive oil loaded with Parmesan and cracked pepper. Appetizers are mostly from the sea: crab cakes, steamed mussels, calamari, three versions of shrimp, also escargot. It's dicey ordering calamari, but Portofino's were tender thick strips, sprinkled with parsley and combined with sweet red pepper and onion strips that were just as tasty. The spicy Cajun dipping sauce is not really needed but has plenty of character.
Just as delicious are succulent scallops (only two for $9), glazed with balsamic and served with berries.
Side salads are nicely composed, with red onion, walnuts and fat, black dried cherries, and they come with the usual long list of dressings that may or may not match.
The kitchen aims to please everyone — ribs, lamb chops and steaks are served as well as sandwiches (po' boy, crab cake, Reuben, French dip "with au jus") — but the bulk of the items are Italian or seafood. A fabulous entrée is cioppino — a fish stew invented by Italian fishermen in San Francisco. It can be made with anything, really, as long as there are fresh tomatoes; Portofino uses shrimp, mussels and crowd-pleasing salmon, as well as artichokes and spinach, in a saffron broth. It's rich and luxurious.
Less exciting was lake perch, pretty bland, but then lake perch is bland. Sesame seed-encrusted ahi tuna with a balsamic glaze would have been tasty, but it was overcooked and tough. I don't think my companion was asked how he wanted it; diners need to demand their tuna "rare," loudly and clearly.
Also disappointing was chicken fontina, with rubbery, tasteless chicken drowned in a lake of cheese. The full description includes spinach, roasted peppers and lemon cream sauce; in hindsight, it's clear that potentially overloaded dishes like this, or chicken Parmesan, not only breaded but topped with bolognese and two kinds of cheese, should be avoided unless you already know the quality of the kitchen. A simpler chicken or veal piccata (lemon butter, white wine, artichokes) would have been less chancy.
In the pasta column, on the other hand, garden pasta was top-drawer — rich with wild mushrooms, spinach and red pepper flakes — but the best part was how the smoky woodsiness had permeated the fat linguine. Also tempting are a pasta puttanesca, with capers and olives, a lobster and scallop pasta, and a "seafood pasta," with shrimp and scallops in a dill sauce. A ziti dish features house-made Italian sausage. And yes, there's lasagna.
The generally good, or at least striving, quality of Portofino's food is not matched by all the amenities. The music one night was '80s pop, and another night we were seated to the strains of "Take a Letter, Maria." On the deck, plastic cups are used for water and cocktails. More attention to these details would remove jarring notes from a tranquil evening.
Portofino offers a $35 moonlight cruise on its double-decker boat, the 80-passenger Friendship, some Fridays, with a cash bar. (Warning: The soundtrack is Jimmy Buffett). Reservations are required; hot pizza is delivered by the famous J.W. Westcott II postal boat.
I don't believe the advertising — "party like you're in the Caribbean" — but, seriously, who needs Margaritaville when you've got the Detroit River?
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].