The corollary to being the first in a given field is the necessity of defending your primacy.
When it introduced top-grade Italian cooking to North County in the mid-1980s, the eternally handsome Portofino in Encinitas shouldered open the gates for the small host of similar eateries that set up shop in other coastal towns.
Portofino consistently produced exciting cuisine. Places that followed it into the area found a ready market for imaginative pastas and for entrees that ventured beyond the usual parmigiana and alla Marsala treatments.
Portofino also was one of the few area eateries to present diners a total package--careful cooking professionally served in a setting of some elegance.
The service and setting remain, and the walled terrace continues to be an exceptionally pleasant spot in which to dine. However, there were some disappointments in parts of a meal ordered recently.
This was the first North County restaurant to introduce the lavish antipasto table typical in restaurants in Italy, and just a glimpse of it was an appetizer in itself; far better, of course, was a plate of the assorted marinated vegetables, roasted peppers, cured meats and seafood salads that made up the colorful display. Recently, however, the offerings on the table looked tired, and much less imaginatively and bountifully arranged.
The menu to a degree makes up for the shortcomings of the antipasto table, since in addition to more than a dozen starters, it offers an even greater number of pastas, most of which may be ordered in half-portion as a first course. Among the appetizers is one item, scungilli , in which Portofino might very well have a local monopoly.
This particular shellfish, similar to conch, is very popular in Sicily, and, although it has a tough character that requires a good bit of tenderizing, it also has a sweet, excellent flavor. The kitchen offers it cold as a salad, or warm in a fradiavolo treatment that bathes the morsels in a fine, light tomato sauce that sparkles with red pepper.
Other starter choices include mushroom caps stuffed with sausage; shrimp fradiavolo (for those too timid to attempt scungilli , perhaps); clams casino; sauteed or deep fried calamari and, somewhat out of context, shrimp cocktail.
The kitchen prepares the various pastas on the premises and offers several house creations, including an elaborate fettuccine made with shallots, five meats, white wine, tomato sauce and cream, and the rigatoni Portofino, for which the menu specifies "secret ingredients." Several of these must have been a secret to whomever cooked this dish recently, since it was agreeable but bland, except for the bits of sausage that brought little tastes of flavor to the thin, cream-based sauce.
Tortellini, also in cream, are stuffed with a rich meat mixture seasoned with fresh sage (wondrously different in flavor from the moldly-tasting powdered sage that goes into most turkey stuffings), and cream again enters into a rich dish of penne dressed with salmon and vodka.
The veal list does offer the usual parmigiana and piccata treatments, but goes on to scaloppine in a three-mushroom sauce and to a house specialty called vitello Saint Moritz, a French-sounding dish of Cognac-flamed veal in a sauce of cream, Champagne and raspberries. Osso bucco , common enough these days but rarely well prepared, was done quite nicely; the braised veal shanks offered plenty of tender and moistly succulent meat, and the sauce, lighter and more rustic than some, had the pleasant, authentic and often lacking flavor of grated lemon rind. On the other hand, a veal special offered that evening, rollatini (rolls) stuffed with spinach and pancetta bacon, was dry and second-rate, and the supposed "five pepper" cream sauce lacked pepper flavor but was, instead, oddly sweet.
A disappointing dryness similarly removed the quality from a roast duck that, otherwise, would have been quite likeable for its unusual brown sauce flavored with pine nuts, amaretto and Sherry.
None of the seafood offerings were sampled, but the menu presents a fair selection that extends to salmon piccata , grilled swordfish (in red sauce, if desired), lobster, the increasingly rare abalone and sea bass in a complicated Sicilian sauce that includes olives, shallots and basil.
1108 First St., Encinitas
Hours: Dinner nightly
Cost: Entrees from $12.75 to $26.00; dinner for two, including a moderate bottle of wine, tax and tip, about $50 to $100.