Posts Tagged ‘Italian cheesecake’

Oh you little tease.

So I must have passed this place a gazillion times heading toward Route 34, but never went in until last weekend, and only because my friend plays piano there. I wanted to hear ‘Jungleland’. Plus I was starving. A happy accident to have had the opportunity to learn about, and taste, their cheesecake.

Backing up: Portofino is teeny tiny, but in a really appealing way; it feels like Sunday dinner at your aunt’s house. A handful of tables, the music from the piano, warm servers and even warmer owners—this kind of synchronicity makes the food taste even better. I’m sure the dinners are good. But here, today, I’m starting with dessert.

I’m not a cheesecake person—that is, I’m not a New York style-cheesecake person. After only a couple of bites, that cream cheese gets to be too rich. But along with the Ferrari 599 GTO and mozzarella in carrozza, the Italians also came up with cheesecake made with ricotta. It’s creamy without being overwhelming, full of nuance—the Jane Austen of desserts.

Finding it homemade, though, ain’t easy. If you’re lucky, your aunt might make it every Easter. If not, finding a specimen at a Jersey Shore restaurant, one that hasn’t been frozen, is a frustrating challenge.

It’s last Sunday night, at the tail end of the heat wave, and I sit down at Portofino’s cozy bar. While waiting for a snack and a drink, I watch Cake Boss with a woman sitting a couple of seats down from me, and together we groan as we watch him pile on the Rice Krispie treats (you know, instead of actual cake). I comment on the blasphemy of it all; my companion agrees. Turns out we have a lot in common: we’re both self-taught pastry chefs, we prefer authentic ingredients, and we bake everything from scratch. I ask her if she eats often at Portofino, and she looks at me quizzically. “I’m his wife,” she says, aiming her thumb at the kitchen. The owner’s wife, Lena.

She disappears into the kitchen for awhile and I look at the dessert menu. Lots of really nice choices, but I saw homemade ricotta cheesecake, so obviously something had to be done. I ask the waiter if it’s made in house, too, and he says yes. Sold.

It’s the simplest, most perfect presentation: one generous slice on a plate with a little dusting of powdered sugar. That’s it. That’s all it needs. (Heads up, platers: When you have a stellar piece of cake, it doesn’t need to be dressed up like a drag queen. In fact, a heap of ice cream and whipped cream is usually a giveaway that the cake underneath is lacking.)

I talk to the bartender, Jim, about the topic of his senior thesis and eat the cheesecake slowly, licking the fork after every bite. It’s dreamy-light, not at all cloying, not at all dense, and the crust is thin and tender. I tasted citron, an essential ingredient in Italian cheesecake, but it didn’t power through. It was subtle. When Lena came out, I asked if the cheesecake was hers. It was.

Get this: she really liked a cheesecake the restaurant used to outsource, and she was bent on replicating it in Portofino’s kitchen. It took months of work—tasting the original cake, making her own, comparing the two, tweaking. Finally, with the right amount of a special ingredient (Can I tell? I never asked. Curses!), she nailed it. And how.

Portofino is casual, hang-out-with-friends friendly and family-friendly. The homemade pasta on the menu blew me kisses, and I’ll be going back for that for sure. But that cake haunts me yet.


Tinton & Sycamore Avenues

Tinton Falls, NJ

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