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Alfred Portale Writes a Second Act, in Italian


This time last year, Alfred Portale was in the middle of his fourth decade as the chef of Gotham Bar & Grill. The loftlike dining room still looked so much like 1985 that it could have served as a set for “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” in the unlikely event that any studio wanted to remake it. The cooking may not have been in the vanguard any longer, but Mr. Portale was still wringing fresh pleasures out of ideas he had been refining for years.

Meanwhile, Victoria Blamey, a chef who cut her teeth in kitchens that practiced the latest avant-garde techniques, was between jobs, taking a long eating tour while she looked for inspiration and a new place to show off her stark, contemporary cooking.

Somehow, files containing the fates of these two chefs must have ended up on the desk of some cosmic prankster who decided it would be amusing if they switched places, “Freaky Friday”-style. Today, Ms. Blamey is the chef at Gotham and Mr. Portale no longer works there. Since November, he has been found at Portale, a few blocks northwest in Chelsea.

When he steps up to the pass of his busy steel kitchen, he looks out on a bright dining room with bleached white-oak floors, marble tabletops and Italian leather chairs on elegantly slender legs of black steel. By 6:30 p.m., very few of those chairs are empty. As the bartender who stirred up one of the restaurant’s several Negroni variations for me early one night said, “When you cook at the same restaurant for 35 years, you’re going to have a following.”

The proximate cause of this mixup was Mr. Portale’s desire to open a second restaurant while keeping some control of the kitchen at Gotham. The other owners apparently refused, putting Ms. Blamey in charge of the hulking white elephant from the ’80s. Mr. Portale then went forward on his own with the second place.

Portale is Italian. The food of Italy, in particular its pasta, was one of several running themes on Mr. Portale’s menus at Gotham, braided together with French cuisine, strictly seasonal East Coast ingredients and a homegrown predilection for emphatic flavors. This also roughly describes what used to be called New American cuisine, a style founded by Mr. Portale and a handful of other chefs. If you subtract the French recipes but keep some French techniques, it describes his food at Portale.

This is not cooking just like Nonna’s. Mr. Portale hits the accents harder, and underlines the heartier flavors with reductions and other tactics. His response to Emilia-Romagna’s delicate tortellini in brodo is to stuff wads of foie gras, cream and chestnut paste, which melt like hot fudge, into tortellini the size of pinkie rings. In Italy, brodo for tortellini is meant to be a little restrained. At Portale, it is a voluptuous double chicken stock.

A similar fate lies in store for another broth, the brodetto di pesce. On the Adriatic, this might be made by boiling the bones of whatever fish will end up in the soup. Mr. Portale’s recipe starts with pounding lobster bodies and shrimp shells through a sieve. The broth is the color of a brick and as thick as heavy cream. It verges on a sauce for the gleaming hunk of cod at the center of the bowl, surrounded by wild shrimp and clams.

Most of the other main courses are cuts of meat or fish. They’re generous and skillfully cooked, but they’re often upstaged by the appetizers and pastas and occasionally by the vegetables they share their plates with. The dry-aged sirloin is an impressively tender piece of beef, and it does manage to live up to the standard set by the smashed fingerling potatoes wearing golden jackets of crisp baked Parmigiano-Reggiano. The chicken, which has been brined and cooked sous vide before its skin is browned in a pan, is perhaps not as interesting as its wild mushrooms and dandelion greens. The pork roast could use more roasted Nardello peppers and a more potent orange mostarda.

The good news is that we have pretty much come to the end of the bad news, and it wasn’t all that bad. Now we can talk about the pasta, which shows the Portale method to its best advantage.

A purist would admire the hand-rolled, ridged ricotta cavatelli, but might want a word with Mr. Portale about the sauce. Sauces, actually. There are two, a spicy arrabbiata and a cilantro pesto that sends it whirling in another direction. It’s unconventional but logical, too — essentially tomato sauce with fresh herbs.

In midwinter, field-grown tomatoes are scarce at the Union Square Greenmarket, where Mr. Portale was a familiar face before some of his cooks were born. He leans instead into ingredients like mushrooms and cheese, or both at once. Fleshy wild porcini are tossed either with kinky strands of mafaldine glazed with truffle butter, or with cappellacci, little bishop’s hats of pasta that break open to let the melted taleggio slip out.

The appetizers are high-spirited and showy, like the salad of fennel (raw and roasted) that starts on one side of the plate with a trail of black rice and winds up on the other with shining pieces of citrus. There is also a fritto misto with a thin, light, frilly crust that a Japanese tempura specialist would admire; a hamachi crudo whose curls of raw, pink fish look like waves breaking over bits of oranges and pools of avocado-and-basil purée; and a kale-and-quinoa salad that sounds like penance but ends up being totally charming.

The desserts at Gotham tried hard to impress. The ones Kaity Mitchell has devised for Portale are calmer, but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up. The tiramisù, shaped into a dome and sheathed in a dark chocolate shell, does a straight-faced impression of a tartufo. The pear torta, for its part, seems to have delusions of being an upside-down cake. Whatever it is, I like it.

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