Posts Tagged ‘ricotta cheesecake’


Whenever I tell people I’m a food writer they always assume I have Food Network standards, or that I’m a gourmet cook. And God knows I hate to be a buzzkill, but here I go.

Re: the first allegation—while the Food Network does hire some decent people, they also have no problem bringing on hacks who can decorate, or swear, or mug like rock stars, but not, you know, cook. In too many cases, shock value is what goes; the food, let alone the quality of it, is almost incidental.

Re: the second—that’s very nice of you, but still no. I’m actually way more boring than that. All I really care about is quality ingredients, prepared in a simple way that shows off how awesome they are. Ta dah. As opposed to the chef wrecking them as a sacrifice to his own ego. Can I please just eat without you handing me your resume with every bite?

Serenity now.

The following review isn’t for chain restaurants. They’re not about quality cooking; they’re about sticking to a formula. It’s for the independents that have gotten off track, or are new to the business, about to open a burger place called Berger’s Burgers Burgers and Burgers, and muse, ‘Wouldn’t a sushi bar look JUST FABOO in that back corner?’

Well—happy to help—it wouldn’t. And segues right into my first point.

1) For the love of all that is righteous, pick a cuisine. One.

Have you ever been to an Irish restaurant in the US that didn’t feature veggie fajitas on their menu along with shepherd’s pie?* Me neither. Restaurants and trying to please everyone are as cliche a pair as Rogaine and a Corvette. Be known for doing what you said you’d do, and doing it very well. I know a sock hop joint in South Jersey that’s known for their grilled cheese sandwiches (thepopshopusa.com. Count ’em—30 kinds of grilled cheese. Looky above for the one I got, the Haddon.). They’re freaking amazing at it, as evidenced by the happy customers who stand on line to get in without complaint.

2) Don’t throw flavors around like you trained at Chez Panisse.

Sometimes restaurants know how to combine unexpected flavors, and the results are successful. Other times it’s as if the kitchen staff wrote down every conceivable flavor on the planet, and some on Jupiter, tacked them to a wall, and then everybody did a shot, then started winging darts at the flavors.

‘Woo hoo—we’ve got two new flavors for our fish tacos! Let’s see…we’ve got…cilantro! And……..huh. Nutter Butter Swirl.’

Other times it’s clear they’re just cleaning out the fridge. That’s when they add ‘vinaigrette’ to throw us off the trail. Genius move.


You forgot the applesauce and the bottom of the Hellmann’s jar.

3) Quit mailing it in.

Tomatoes. It’s high season. Buy local ones, for crying out loud. They’ll cost more than the pink ones that taste like wet tube socks, but people will remember how intensely flavored the tomatoes on your sandwiches were. They’ll be further impressed that you source locally (people do want to hear this today) and will be back, begging for it. Go ahead and charge more. We’ll pay it because it’s worth it. Promise.


Juicy, runny, and worth licking off your arms.

Then there was the time last month when a bunch of us went out after a show. I asked the server what was on tap for dessert. My friend Tom started laughing and said, ‘You just want to see a dessert menu so you can mock it.’

But I’m hoping it’s good. I am! I’m genuinely rooting for you, hoping there’s somebody in the kitchen who’s making something yummy from scratch. I would be thrilled to order it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at times with wonderful treats in restaurants. (That’s homemade Italian ricotta cheesecake below, from Portofino in Tinton Falls. Best I have ever eaten, anywhere. And it came just as you see it, with the lightest ever powdered-sugar snowfall.)

But oh yeah, I’ll cheerfully mock the dessert menu if I sense everything they offer is frozen, and/or was borne of a paper pouch, and/or otherwise tastes like it’s full of fake and acrimony. And wouldn’t they kind of deserve it?

Can we all agree that cake mixes uniformly blow? The real thing is chocolate, butter, sugar, flour and eggs. A five-year-old can swing that. $9 for something they shook out of a box is a fat no.

If your brownie’s essentially a little square of lab ingredients, I don’t care that on top of it you recreated the left wall of Taylor Swift’s walk-in closet in royal icing. Get the brownie right first.**

Whenever I order dessert out I always ask for it without all of the glitterati. This inevitably makes the server a little twitchy. With a big smile she assures me that the toppings are scrumptious. I am resolute. Then she scampers off to tell the kitchen her customer wants to see what the Toll House pie looks like in its birthday suit. They’ll panic, and, collectively twitchy now, they’ll press their little noses up against the kitchen door’s windows to inhale in short gasps as they watch me eat it. And maybe they’re inspired to mix together some butter and sugar.


*By the way, authentic shepherd’s pie is made with lamb. No shepherds in it. Just sheep. (Made with chopped beef it’s called cottage pie. No cottages in it. Cows.)

**I wrote about this in my bora bora post when I said restaurants hand you a dessert covered with goo, betting you’ll be too impressed by this quaking, amorphous blob to notice they’re stiffing you and giggling about it in the kitchen. Hasn’t changed yet, and stoicism is such hard work on my part. Get with it, people.

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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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