Best Dining in Los Angeles

Portofino Cucina Italiana

November 26, 2012
By Nadia Dulyn

You’ll find traditional northern Italian cuisine cooked with heart and served at affordable prices at Portofino Cucina Italiana in downtown Los Angeles.

Portofino Cucina Italiana

Fettuccine alla Piemontese at Portofino Cucina Italiana: Long flat pasta with
mushrooms, sage, thyme in a creamy wine sauce topped with truffle oil
and Parmesan cheese.

Nestled on the corner of Main Street and Fifth Street in downtown Los Angeles, tucked under milk-chocolate colored awnings and a wall of greenery filled with twinkling white lights, Portofino Cucina Italiana offers a relaxed, friendly atmosphere where patrons can enjoy home-cooked meals of traditional northern Italian cuisine that stays true to its origins.

Authenticity isn’t easy, especially in fusion-fad Los Angeles, but when it comes to true Italian fare, Diego Ortoli, owner and executive chef, makes his heritage proud. By creating simple, flavorful dishes reminiscent of his favorites from Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, Ortoli honors the culinary gastronomic contributions of fettuccine, tortellini, lasagna, prosciutto, and parmesan cheese along with some of the region’s most notable wines.

Originally from Naples, Ortoli likes to talk about his passion for the richness and simplicity of real Italian dishes. His humble introduction into the food industry started as a manager for a small Italian restaurant in West Los Angeles and two years ago, he opened his own venue downtown.

His signature dishes reflect quintessential Italy while the staff and casual ambiance evoke Italian family hospitality. Live music, laughter and loud voices travel through the air mingling with the aromas wafting from the open doors of the bustling kitchen.

Portofino restaurant in Los Angeles

A view of the Portofino’s interior, main room (on the right) and kitchen entrance (on the left), from the front dining area that opens onto Main Street.

Although the northern Italian cuisine is served tradizionale, the overall decor is eclectic, accented with Asian elements such as oversized red glass plates and wrought iron lanterns scattered across the ceiling. The main dining area is divided in half with one area featuring a place for live music. On this particular night Scott Sorrentino graced customers with jazz classics and songs from Sinatra’s playbook — piano bar style, just like you’d find in dozens of restaurants in Milan.

The menu is extensive both in food selection and Italian wines chosen to complement the fare. The unique addition of a gluten-free menu revolutionizes Italian cuisine without changing the traditional flavors. Yes, finally, an Italian restaurant that serves gluten-free pastas and panini. Even more amazing, the kitchen willingly accommodates with customized orders.

The decision making begins. First up, a drink to get the evening started. Our waiter, Antonio, briefs us with his recommendations in both red and white wines. All of the varietals are from Italy, but hard to find in the United States. As we narrow our selections, a basket of fresh baked peasant bread wrapped in a cloth napkin is served with a plate of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The feast commences!

Next, a series of mouthwatering appetizers and salads. The signature greens, appropriately named Insalata Portofino ($12) tossed with red and golden beets over a bed of mixed greens topped with crumbled goat cheese and lemon vinaigrette — the perfect marriage of mild sweetness and tangy flavor.

Insalata Caprese at Portofino Cucina Italiana

Insalata Caprese at Portofino Cucina Italiana: Fresh mozzarella, sliced tomato, basil, extra virgin olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar

The signature appetizer, Bruschetta di Pomodoro, combines traditional ingredients (fresh tomatoes marinated in olive oil and herbs) that awaken the taste buds with a garlicky zing. Traditional peasant bread, baked fresh daily, can be swapped for gluten-free potato bread.

Entrees follow suit with a myriad of risottos, pastas, meat and fish dishes. There are also daily specials recited with verve! All are hearty and palatable options making it difficult to choose just one. The risotto is a must. Try the Risotto ai Funghi ($15), rice cooked to perfection blended with sautéed mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and garlic, then laced with white truffle oil to create a delicate flavor that melts in your mouth.

For the gluten conscious, the pasta options are nearly identical to the wheat-based menu with a few exceptions. The fusilli and penne are made from brown rice instead of semolina, so they cook al dente. The Fusilli Pomodoro e Basilico ($11.50) is served with chunks of fresh tomato, basil, garlic, olive oil to create a sauce-like base and topped with parmesan cheese. The pungent garlic-flavored sauce made up for the unexceptional taste of the gluten-free pasta.

Traditional entrees consisting of meat or fish are limited on the menu. All are served with steamed vegetables (broccoli and carrots) along with creamy mashed potatoes. Garlic ruled supreme over the Salmone Ripieno al Pesto ($17) consisting of portion-sized roasted salmon with a blanket of pesto over a bed of sautéed spinach. The salmon tasted fresh not fishy, the mashed potatoes were rich and the vegetables were deliciously simple.

As the evening progressed, the energy of the room rose. The restaurant filled up with families toting small children, young couples on dates, clusters of corporate types and gatherings of friends of all ages. Despite the commotion, our waiter managed our customized order with ease and accommodated all our requests.

Tiramisu at Portofino's in Los Angeles

Portofino’s Tiramisu: Made with ladyfingers dipped in coffee, layered with a whipped mixture of egg yolks and mascarpone cheese, and flavored with cocoa.

With the bulk of the meal devoured, my sweet tooth hungered for dessert. Instead of settling for one, I petitioned for a small sampling of each. A large square plate with fan assortment of desserts arrived to our table. Mini cannoli stuffed with ricotta and chocolate chips, flourless chocolate cake topped with white chocolate, homemade cheesecake drizzled with blackberry sauce and tiramisu are just some of the options ($7.50 each for full-sized desserts).

For foodies with big appetites and a penchant for Italian taste and style, you’ll discover there are many delicious options from appetizers to dessert, served with an upscale presentation in generous portions and prepared with love for genuine northern Italian cuisine.

Buon Appetito!


Portofino Cucina Italiana

464 South Main Street

Los Angeles, CA 90013
(213) 239-9019

Open for lunch, Monday-Friday from 11:30 am – 2:30 pm

Open for dinner Monday – Sunday from 5 pm – 10 pm

Copyright © Nadia Dulyn/2012 Singular Communications, LLC.

Nadia DulynSingularCity member Nadia Dulyn, born in the Big Apple, brings an authentic New York point of view to her writing along with her passion for understanding people and the misconceptions of a single lifestyle. She launched her first career as an Art Director in New York City and continues to freelance bicoastal. As a self-proclaimed oenophile and foodie, she is always looking for new places to tempt her palette both locally and globally. 
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  1. Gretchen says:

    Thanks for finally talking about > Northern Italian Cuisine
    | Singular Magazine < Loved it!

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