I smacked the back of my spoon on top of my crème brûlée, revealing the basil infused custard lying beneath its torched surface, it’s aroma incredibly charming. I was already full, but I'm not one to turn down dessert. I took a spoonful.
"Oh my goodness," I moaned loudly, leaning all of my weight from tonight’s dinner into the back of the chair. My friend who sat across from me looked up from her spoon and laughed. We couldn't understand how we were in an Italian restaurant in the Bronx and NOT on Arthur Avenue, for me, the two is seemingly synonymous with one another. This association was surely challenged by tonight’s adventure in the South Bronx to Porto Salvo on 161st between Melrose and Elton Avenues as part of “Savor the Bronx” restaurant week.
Upon seating, I quickly took stock of the space around me: seahorses, low hanging lights, white tiles and wood lining the bar and walls. A boat steering wheel hung on the far end of the bar. Behind it hung a captain’s hat. The nautical décor transports one to an old Italian port tavern to which the restaurant derives its interior.
The ambience was relaxed. It was something I found myself taking note of repeatedly: how comfortable I was, how comfortable everyone around me seemed to be. It was a relatively busy night for the budding restaurant, shy of being open only five months. We sat next to a table of about eight, a good-humored and lively group, but I was able to hear my friend clearly as if she were sitting right next to me. For the most part, patrons appeared to be locals. The restaurant stands alone on the block, save for a deli at one corner, and a fresh foods market and an African market sandwiching both sides of the restaurant. Service wasn’t rushed, which I typically prefer. I’m not one to want my meals so quickly, especially multiple courses. It helps to appreciate the full culinary experience of a home cooked meal coupled with the intimacy of enjoying good conversation and several glasses of wine in between. From my experience, this also tends to be typical of most authentic style restaurants where one can be assured that their food is prepared fresh and made to order.
Porto Salvo was one of the latest restaurants I couldn’t wait to try out. I followed them on Facebook, on Instagram, all before actually stepping foot inside of it. For all I knew this could have been a total disappointment, which, thankfully, it was not. In a recent conversation, Mark Lu, one of the restaurant partners, spoke a truth that all foodies live by:
This is an important fact. To live in one of the most incredible, diverse cities in the world, as much as I love to eat, I am hungrier for an experience and I don’t always want to swipe my Metrocard and leave the mainland behind in search of it. Call it Bronx pride. Heck, call it sheer laziness, I wouldn’t be entirely offended, but one thing I do know is that I can have both a good meal and the experience of fine dining right here in my home borough.
In the beginning of the restaurant’s establishment, finding ways to bring the fine dining experience to the locals has always been a priority. Often, Lu and his partner (in business and in life) Luigi Ghidetti, who is also the executive chef, would shed their labels as restaurant owners and sit down with the patrons and casually converse with them in order to understand what they most desired in a fine dining experience:
“The idea of us being owners and chefs, being there and engaging [with] the locals after they consumed a meal; we [would ask], ‘How do you feel, you know, when you look at the menu?’ and ‘What would you like to see? What sort of basic ingredients would you like to see?’ And then we connect those meals that they would like to consume with some of the recipes we already have and then we can present that dish later on…[W]e have done two or three iterations of the menu, and those menus have been adjusted and continue to adjust to the local taste but without compromising the recipes we already have. That I think is important because, you know, you cannot say that, or no restaurant can say that, ‘Well we have great food!’, but is it the food that the local people are looking forward to having [for] dinner?”
“Savor the Bronx” restaurant week afforded us the opportunity to enjoy a three-course old Italian style cuisine meal for only $35, which included a glass of their house wine. I started with their homemade crab cake served over cauliflower and string beans with a light white drizzle sauce, my friend enjoying their Bruschetta Funghi e Fontina (mixed mushrooms, fontina cheese, and truffle oil over toasted peasant bread). For the main course, I had their homemade ravioli with sausage and potatoes with a rosemary sauce (an incredibly aromatic meal!) while she had the grilled salmon with string beans, roasted tomatoes and potatoes. Portions sizes of both of our appetizers and main courses were impressive and we find ourselves full rather quickly and taking leftovers home. Of course, saving enough room for dessert.
From my seat, I could smell several other patron’s plates as they were being delivered to their tables, curious about that they were having, asking myself if I made the wrong decision, instead confirming that I would just need to come back and try another menu item. In chatting with the waiter, it was clear that the restaurant met the need for more options for “a night out” without having to travel too far from home, a personal philosophy I stand by for my weekend adventures. Lu recalls similar frustrations with trying to convince some of his friends to come visit him here in the Bronx:
“When we call up friends, they always say, ‘Well you come to me and meet me at such and such,’ which is usually not in the Bronx, and then you have to be the one, as a resident of the Bronx, that has to travel out of the borough. But then when you decide to say, ‘Well, why don’t you come up for once?’, then they quickly say, ‘Well, there’s nothing near you,’ or you all end up going to Riverdale, or Arthur Avenue or a little further [out and away]. They come and meet you at your apartment and then [you all] have to travel to another place…it’s always an extra step further and it really prevents people from connecting.”
These “compromises” shouldn’t have to come at a cost of living in the Bronx. Bronx pride is strong, and real! And anything that deepens this emotion is worth proudly representing, Thankfully, places like Porto Salvo are an important reminder on all that our borough has to offer, specifically to its locals. We can begin to abandon the idea that we need to travel into Manhattan for a good meal and great drinks. Instead, we can invest in exploring the open seas that is our home borough and discover new places to drop anchor. With a well-stocked bar featuring local draft beers, a variety of wines, and a menu full of authentic Italian cookery made to order at an affordable price, and most important, the feeling of being home, I wouldn’t be surprised if Porto Salvo becomes a frequent weeknight hot spot. And knowing that they offer brunch (with outdoor seating, sch’mon summer!), I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself pulling into port and dropping my anchor again and again.