A new Venice style restaurant to indulge in.

The founder of Ciao Bella who last wooed us with the new Mediterranean concept Saffron has now opened a third European concept – Portofino, just a few doors down from Ciao Bella on Dong Du. Where Ciao Bella offers hearty home-style Italian fare and Saffron dishes from around the Mediterranean coastline designed to share, Portofino (15 Dong Du, D1) delivers to Saigon a dining concept that’s trendy in London right now – cicchetti.

Cicchetti – the plural of a single dish cicchetto – is a tradition from Venice best likened to Spanish tapas, but usually served in larger portions. Perhaps it is the growing international trend away from huge main meals to more modest, less gluttonous servings that is driving the popularity of this Italian concept; whatever is fuelling the fashion, it’s a welcome addition to Saigon’s restaurant offers. In Venice, common cicchetti include finger foods like olives and tiny sandwiches or halved hard boiled eggs leading into larger dishes like seafood or meats served on polenta or toasted bread and small servings of larger entrees. Portofino covers the whole gambit. Grab a friend, pull up a chair in Portofino’s relaxing brick cavern with its checked blue table cloths and endearing staff and make a meal out of sharing a range of cicchetti.

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To ease your way into the concept try the spuntino – bacon wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo and red pepper sauce, or fried olives stuffed with pork, cheese and chili tomato dip. Or the crostini: toasted bread topped with combinations as intriguing as Burrata cheese and prosciutto, smoked salmon, marscapone, cucumber, capers and red onion or fresh mozzarella and Nduja, a spicy spreadable pork sausage.

Then to the main event – the cichetti. Owner/Chef Tony Fox has created 17 different dishes, featuring cheeses, salad, pasta, prawns, pork, beef, salmon and seafood. Highlights for innovation: Trippa alla Romana – tripe with chickpeas, marinara sauce and fried egg; Slow braised pork belly served on mascarpone polenta; and Mozzarella in Carozza – breaded fresh mozzarella, anchovy and basil toasted with pomodoro sauce. And borrowed from Saffron, cheese Saganaki served flaming at the table. The dishes range upwards from VND135,000, with only one setting you back more than VND200,000.

Traditionalists who enjoy their pasta can choose from a range of eight dishes, including ravioli, gnocchi, fusilli and the handkerchief pasta (more about that below).

The very hungry can opt for bigger plates – rib eye steak and lobster tail for VND495,000, BBQ seafood or whole grilled seas bass, but we can’t see why anyone would want to limit themselves to one large main when the range of cichetti is so mouthwatering.

Our Meal

The night we visited, Portofino unveiled its new menu after a soft opening and trial for the restaurant. A little overwhelmed by the broad choice and mouthwatering descriptions, we were happy for Tony to recommend his personal favorites.

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We started with Tuscan chicken livers (VND175,000), served on crostini. While thick and chunky they were by no means dry, rather moist and morish, covered in a delicately balanced port and orange sauce. Next up were the dates (VND135,000), much to the delight of my chorizo-addicted review partner. These proved a surprisingly good balance of savory, spicy and sweet: baked until the bacon is crunchy and salty, the dates retain their sweetness and the chorizo adds the spice. It’s a difficult combination to pull off, but Tony’s team succeeded with merit. It’s probably the smallest dish on the menu and you’re likely to want to order a second serving.

Then came the pan fried ricotta gnocchi (VND195,000) served with tender strips of braised oxtail in a savory, meaty sauce that seemed to melt in the mouth. Ciao Bella already serves one of the best gnocchi dishes in town – pan fried to give a crispy exterior yet soft center and served in gorgonzola cream sauce. Now Portofino offers a meat lover’s edition, equally flavorsome and equally addictive.

For a pasta Tony chose the handkerchief pasta dish (VND125,000), Ligunan pesto and peconne. This was something completely new to both of us, and a revelation. Tender pasta in sort of flattened bows, a little like a lace handkerchief to look at, with a strong-flavored freshly made pesto sauce and pecorino cheese, again a creative balance of herbaceous flavor with a contrasting cheese and smooth, slightly oily mouth-feel.

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And finally – and believe us, we were getting full at this point – grilled salmon served on shrimp risotto (VND185,000). The salmon had a strong smoky flavor, full barbecue style more than stovetop grill, the delicate flavor of the pink flesh offset by the herbaceous pesto again. The risotto was moist and creamy. A great mix of flavors and textures in one modestly sized dish.

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Despite our fullness we could not pass by the chance to try the dessert (all choices are VND140,000). And Tony’s team insisted we try two they’re the most proud of: bomboni and rice pudding. The bomboni comprises round donuts, sliced in half and filled with mascarpone served on a bed of Nutella spread and topped with a raspberry jam – eye watering to look at, delicious to eat. Rice pudding, to me, conjures unpleasant memories of boarding school dessert – so it’s a dish I usually spurn in favor of something more adventurous. Here is an exception. Made with Arborio rice and mixed with honey and roasted fruits, it’s a sweet, rewarding indulgence for those who cannot handle the guilt trip associated with mascarpone-filled donuts. The Arborio rice gives it larger grains, the honey is sweet but not too sweet and the entire dish was creamy and smooth.

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Portofino is Saigon’s newest restaurant concept and culinary adventure. A perfect destination for couples, small groups, celebrations or just to quietly indulge in something inventive.

Images by Neil Featherstone