It isn't a small feat to open a restaurant on a wooded stretch of road miles from town, with no advertising, no website, no Twitter handle or Facebook page — particularly in lean economic times — and manage to pack the house every weekend. Portico, the new Italian venture from chef Paolo Randazzo in the former Edible Garden space, is doing just that.
Randazzo has a lot going for him. There's a buzz surrounding the eagerly anticipated opening. He's built a loyal following from his years at Franco's and Sensi in Shockoe Bottom, which he still oversees. While there isn't any foot traffic on the rural section of River Road where Portico sits, pockets of homes nearby provide a moneyed audience. Most of all, the place is simply beautiful.
While the original buildings on the property are intact, almost every other detail, inside and out, has been transformed. Pulling up to the entrance on a dark night is like stumbling upon a little jewel box in the wilderness. Charming gardens and delicate slate surround the main building, and a large terrace and fire pit are softly lighted. Inside, the dining room is elegant but cozy and understated with vintage sconces, white linens, seasonal flowers and a green granite bar with rich wood cabinetry housing the liquors, wines and a television tuned to ESPN.
It sounds romantic, aside from the TV, and might actually feel that way if it weren't so loud and crowded. On weekends the place is a bona fide scene, all tables full and the bar two or more deep. On a recent Friday night, Justin Verlander, pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and the American League's most valuable player, is perched at the bar waiting for takeout. No one seems to mind that his red Ferrari is parked in the handicapped space. Unsurprisingly, reservations are a must, at least on weekends. Diners shouldn't be late, even if they call ahead to inform the hostess, because their table may be given away, and they'll wait about an hour for the next available.
So, what of the food? Is it worthy of (and worth braving) the crowds, the wait, the MVP?
It would be so tidy to say it was a picture-perfect Italian gem serving pitch-perfect delicacies. But the handiwork inside the kitchen thus far isn't always on par with that on the outside.
The fried calamari ($10) is too salty; the broiled seafood platter ($20) includes some nice chunks of fresh crab but otherwise is lackluster. The penne Bolognese with braised meat sauce ($15) is rich and flavorful, but is made too sweet with a heavy drizzle of balsamic syrup. The smattering of garden vegetables on the pizza Portico ($13) is overshadowed by the huge garlic cloves, which are overshadowed by an overload of cheese, which are all perched on a crust that's both soggy in the middle and tough at the edges.
But the portions are generous and the prices are moderate. The caponata ($8), grilled baguette slices topped with a delightful compote of eggplant, tomatoes, onion and olives, strikes a perfect savory-sweet balance. Likewise, the sauce on the rosemary chicken ($18) blends pancetta, mushrooms and shallots to delicious effect. Cheesecake topped with berries is creamy and dreamy, a luscious ending to the meal.
Better than the cheesecake, though, or the pretty lights or the flowers or the fireplace, is the warmth and generosity of Randazzo and his staff. Even with a full-to-overflowing house, they are gracious and accommodating. On a visit for takeout one evening, when to-go cups of water are requested for a carful of thirsty children and the staff has none, it improvises with quart containers instead, offering to punch holes for straws.
With such dedication to hospitality, there's reason to trust that in time, the food at Portico will more closely match the magical ambience. S
Portico Restaurant and Bar ($$)
12506 River Road
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m.