European culture and gourmet cuisine often go hand-in-hand. 11 years ago I happened upon a small family-owned osteria in Rome’s Trastevere district. I can still taste a smallish pasta dish I ordered, served at just the right temperature and bursting with the flavor of fresh tomatoes and odd spices. I also recall wandering around Portofino, a seaside Italian village not far from Cinque Terre, a few years earlier. A bit touristy, but with the usual historical aromas and architectural charms and a warm, wonderful sense of “so glad I’m here…life doesn’t get much better than this.”
I’m mentioning these experiences because last night a friend and I visited Portofino, a respected Italian restaurant in Wilton, Connecticut — the woodsy, whitebread, not-overwhelmingly-liberal town where I went to high school for a couple of years.
It looked inviting from the outside, but I was hit with a big fat “uh-oh” the instant I walked in — three large flatscreens in the bar area showing ESPN. A sports-bar vibe (a general Hollywood Elsewhere no-no) always means “watch it…this may be an okay restaurant, but it’s catering to Ordinary Joes so grim up for some agreeable but unexceptional food.” That’s what we got. Acceptable meh. But with a nice candlelit atmosphere (if you were facing away from the bar area).
This is what upper Fairfield County dining is often about — cushy comfort vibes but minus the sublime flavors, seasonings and sauces. For people willing to settle. Not unpleasant but you’re also thinking “this is not what great servings can and should be — inoffensive but substitute-level.”