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Old-world Italian at Mario’s Portofino

By Nora Tarte
Cannelloni della casa at Mario's Portofino.

There is a certain clientele that frequents an established Italian restaurant that effortlessly seems to signal the food is going to be good. Walking into Mario’s Portofino in the strip mall across from Polo Lounge, I saw all of the markings of a classic and authentic Italian restaurant.

Outside the door, twinkly lights illuminate the entrance. Inside, the restaurant is dark with intimate tables, larger cozy booths and a dark bar serving classic cocktails, beer and wine. The guests looked as if they had all been visiting Mario’s for years, a go-to Friday night date spot for their generation.

An extensive menu takes some time to mull over so order a drink to sip while you sift through the options. On first visit, it’s never a bad idea to ask the server what’s good. Ours pointed us toward the namesake Pollo Portofino and Vitello Portofino, sauteed veal or chicken with artichoke hearts and mushrooms in a creamy white wine sauce, and some of the heartier seafood pastas. The specials were also enticing and seafood-heavy on our visit.

The menu sparks attention with its favorites including the simple capellini pomodoro basilico (angel hair pasta with fresh tomato, basil and garlic) and spaghetti carbonara (spaghetti with egg, bacon, cream and parmesan cheese)—a personal go-to. Fettucine alfredo, spaghetti, gnocchi (potato dumplings), pollo marsala—it’s all there.

Wanting to step ever so slightly outside of the box, I switched up my typical order for something else. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with the cannelloni della casa, but what was delivered was adjacent to a lasagna. Baked cheese over the top, the homemade pasta was filled with a blended helping of chicken, spinach and ricotta before it was treated with a creamy marinara sauce. The inside was hot and definitely needed some time to cool, but once it was ready to eat, it was delicious and a testament to the care each meal is given at Mario’s Portofino.

While the pasta was a standout, it’s the salad that ended up as my favorite part of the meal.

If you enjoy goat cheese, the goat cheese salad will not disappoint. It’s a plate of mixed greens topped with fried panko-crusted goat cheese balls (where the inside is a mix of goat cheese and pistachios) and a generous helping of dried cranberries for color and flavor. The house-made pomegranate vinaigrette is light on the fruit, but compliments the other flavors well. An interesting juxtaposition between the harsh vinegar and signature goat cheese flavor awakens the palate—no bland taste buds here.

For drinks, cocktails are available as well as a mighty wine and beer list. Like any true local’s spot, however, you can also bring your own wine with a small corkage fee—a money saving strategy for those who plan to order a bottle anyway.

From start to finish, the service matches the restaurant’s old-world charm. White tablecloths, quickly refilled water glasses, tableside bottle service, all done with a smile and an air of ease. No one felt rushed or too busy. Instead, the service added to the calm and slightly luxurious ambiance of the entire establishment, an experience not unlike the one doled out at Johnny’s (for those familiar with the other long-standing Italian eatery).

In short, if you’re looking for good and authentic Italian fare for a date night experience—look no further. Beyond the doors of Mario’s Portofino, you’ll be transported to another time and place, and we don’t think you’ll be in a rush to get back to reality.

Details

1505 S. Virginia Street, Reno, Nev. 89502
775-825-7779
Lunch Tuesday – Friday 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Dinner Monday – Saturday 5 to 9 p.m.

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