Monday, November 30, 2009

Portalli's Opened In The Former Jordan's

An Italian restaurant named Portalli's has opened in the Ellicott City space that used to be Jordan's Steakhouse, according to Elizabeth Large's blog.

The email sent to Large says the restarant -- owned by the folks who own Diamondback Tavern -- had a soft open last weekend and an official grand opening scheduled for December 11-13.

(Update: Check out the comments below by earlier diners. Plus, a comment that appears to be from one of the owners. It's so informative, that I have to believe it's real. If that's true, then I'm glad that people are adding useful comments to HowChow. If it's not, then please email me so that I remove the comment.)

(Update II:  The comments below are really from Lee Biars.  He also wrote a post that I called "Thoughts From The Other Side Of The Check.")


Jen said...

Great Italian in this area is hard to find. Will have to check this out. The best pizza we've had is at Trattoria King's Contrivance. They also have amazing caprese salad.

BeerGuy said...

I went there tonight (Midnight Madness downtown Ellicott City)

Dishes priced right, some nice twists on classic Italian fare, I had a parsley pesto dish which was delicious, really tasty panna cotta dessert.

The menu isn't extensive but they tinker with the classics in a way to enjoy that. Didn't order it but bartender was raving about the lamb shank.

Innovate Your Way out said...

Was also there Friday at Midnight Madness, but less impressed overall.

Acoustics in main dining room are horrible, forcing those in the middle of the room to yell across the table - maybe the vaulted ceiling or lack of sound absorbing fabrics? Also, acknowledging the soft opening, the service was slow and food was rated from pretty good to just okay at our table. The smallish plates and prices were welcome, but not sure what the goals is: Little Italy in EC or a pricey Carrabbas with tight hallways and not next to an Outback?

Will try again once the dust settles, but not impressed out the gate.

BeerGuy said...

Yeh the acoustics weren't good but it was like that w/Jordans too. I think thats just how its going to be with these Ellicott City places (Diamondback, Ellicott Mills Brewing, too). Just really weird buildings.

Innovate Your Way out said...

Did not realize that Jordan's had the same aural issues. Just seems in stark contrast to the deep leather chairs and general low key atmosphere they appear to be trying to impart. I chalked it up initially to a boisterous midnight shopping crowd last night, but realized it was just generally really poor acoustics.

Also saw fellow blogger Dennis Lane who was seated at one of the tables against the wall who said the sound was fine. Then again, that could be due to his early days with me as a teen working at Merriweather...

wordbones said...

what'd you say?

Lee Biars said...

BeerGuy- Thanks for your nice comments, I'm glad you enjoyed yourself.

Chuck- The acoustics are definitely a problem in the main dining room upstairs due to the size of the room and tall ceilings. This is going to be an ongoing battle for us, but we will do what we can to keep the sound from bouncing around the room.

To clear up a little confusion regarding our concept, we are trying to be neither of the things you laid out. Our menu structure and identity were inspired by traditional Italian dining where it is common to enjoy an antipasti (appetizer), followed by an ensalate (salad), then a pasta, and finally a meat (carne) or fish (pesce). Our portion sizes are purposefully manageable in order to allow guests to enjoy multiple courses. While a somewhat popular way of enjoying Italian food worldwide, this is something that is fairly new to Maryland. Popular chefs such as Mario Batale and Michael Chiarello haven had great success with similar concepts, and our goal is to bring this style of dining to Maryland. We are working with our servers in terms of properly conveying this dining theme to each and every guest, and if that didn't come through at your table then I can certainly see why you weren't exactly sure what to make of us. Admittedly, we are still working out some of the kinks due to the fact that we opened in less than 3 weeks from the time we set foot in the building. I am pleased that you are willing to give us another shot in the future, and we realize there is added pressure to 'get it right' based on the popularity of Jordan's. Give us about a month to get everything ironed out in terms of the food and service and I guarantee your next experience at Portalli's will be a vast improvement over what you experienced during Midnight Madness.

I hope this clears at least a few things up.


BeerGuy said...

Thanks for clarifying Lee, I couldn't quite put to words what the concept was, my group really appreciated the slightly scaled down portion size, was enjoyable to put together several courses at our whimsy.

I still need to get over to Diamondback to try that corn+crab dog.

Innovate Your Way out said...


Look forward to giving it a try again.

I acknowledged the soft opening caveat in my comments and appreciate the overview on the concept. What was also a shame is the fine piano player who went largely unheard from our center room location. We were the ones texting at the large table.....unfortunately to each other as a means of conversation ;-)

Best of luck on the new place, thanks for checking in here.

BeerGuy said...


Lee's comment is legit, he's a co-owner of Portalli's and Diamondback, and frequent food blog commenter at least when these establishments are discussed :)

Anonymous said...

I had dinner there with BF on Monday night. We ordered the mini calzone and calamari for starters. The mini calzones have a nice crust (fried perhaps?). The calamari is a large portion and I like that the tentacles are included --- but a bit greasy (oil pooling at bottom of plate). The BF ordered the branzino, which was a nice fresh fish. The menu says it comes with brown rice. But alas, no brown rice. Instead it was served plainly with some tasty but rather overcooked green beans. Hmm. Shouldn't there have been some kind of starch to go with it? I ordered the Cioppino. I'm all for tweaking traditional recipes, but a starchy white sauce does not a Cioppino make. Reminded me of the white, slimy "lobster" sauce in Chinese takeout. The Cioppino at the Catonsville Gourmet with the spicy, tomato-y broth, more generous seafood and toast points is orders of magnitude better. The panna cota is ok --- but the balsamic vinegar glaze is a bit too vinegar-y. BF says we should have asked the kitchen to substitute hot fudge instead. Final check was close to $100 for appetizers, entrees, dessert, coffee and tip. Seem a bit much. Saw one patron eating spaghetti and meatballs and thought, I probably should have settled for something simpler like that. Don't know if we will go back. I've had better meals at the Trolley Stop for much less $$.

Craig F said...

I visited Portalli's on Sat. Jan 2, 2010 with my wife, brother and sister-in-law. We arrived at about 9:30PM and were greeted by the bartender. He was noshing on a plate of pasta and exclaimed with 1/2 a mouth full, "Have the spaghetti and meatballs - its excellent." To be fair, there was no one at the bar so he couldn't offend anyone by eating while working.

We started with the antipasta which was adequate. It came with nice bread (though I could have used more than 3 pieces), some olives and a few meats. Decent.

We should have stopped there but we didn't.

Much like an American restaurant should be judged on its hamburger, I think a place that claims to be an Italian establishment should be judged on its pasta and meatballs. So my brother opted for the veal shank and I got the spaghetti and meatballs reserving the option to take 1/2 of his shank.

I was shocked at the portion - though I see from the comments above that the owners are trying something new. My question is....why? Why try to outsmart yourself? Just give us what we want. I'm telling you, this was like a cup and a 1/2 of pasta.

Getting past the miniscule size of the dish, I decided to take a bite. HORRIBLE! Just horrible. The sauce tasted like it was laced with BBQ sauce, and the meatballs were tough and lifeless. Seriously, I've had better meatballs frozen, out of a bag. And the sauce was just the worst I have ever had. It was so sickening sweet.

After one horrible bite of pasta and meatball, I immediately sent the dish back opting to go hungry. Look, if you can get even the simplest of dishes right, why would I experiment with anything else on the menu?

But in what proved to be yet another foolish moment, I decided to try a bite of my brother's shank. To my shock and dismay, the shank was cold...not warm, but cold. My brother sent back the shank, and while were discussing our issues with the manager, a new shank arrived. No problems with temperature now - that is, if you had an asbestos-lined mouth. This thing was 1000 degrees Celsius, and as one would expect, the meat was tougher than shoe leather. Absolutely inedible!

My sister in law ordered the clams with linguini. She finished the small portioned meal, but for the life of me, I don't know how. To me it was a flavorless mess.

My wife finished her crab and risotto cake. I took a bite and thought it was fairly tasty.

The only bright spots of the night were the fairly priced wine and the ever-so-kind waitress who remained gracious in the line of fire. Poor thing.

With a kitchen staff that is clearly outmatched by even the simplest of dishes, I honestly don't know if I'll give the place a second chance. I give the place a year if they don't fire the current crew and rethink their obviously flawed concept.

Matt said...

My wife and I were there this past weekend and I'm still scratching my head over it. The food was fine, although I agree that the servings were very small. My understanding is that this is intentional, but what seems to be a reasonably priced restaurant turns out to be expensive when additional courses are taken into consideration.

My biggest issue was with the wine. We ordered a DaVinci Chianti Classico off the menu, an upcharge of $8 from the Chianti. I wasn't given the chance to look at the bottle before it was opened and poured, but afterwards I noticed that it was a Chianti and not a Chianti Classico as listed. The waiter insisted that I was wrong and that it was indeed a Chianti Classico, but I wasn't going to argue with him at that point about the differences between the two wines. I did call the restaurant on Sunday and they informed me that the menu was a misprint and that they do not serve a Chianti Classico. They did reimburse me for the $8 difference, but the waiter said this is the wine that is most ordered and it made me wonder how many people they have overcharged and if they plan on continuing to do so.

One last thing, we ordered a custard for dessert, which was ok, but be careful when ordering as it is egg-less and has a distinct vinegar taste which stayed with me for hours. It's not for everyone.

We'll likely try it again once they iron out the kinks. EC needs a nice Italian restaurant so I hope they succeed.

Joe said...

Let me preface by saying I've been a reader of this blog for a while (keep up the fantastic work), but haven't been compelled to comment on anything until now. I felt the need to chime in based on the criticism Portalli's has received here and let everybody know things aren't all that bad (from my experience). The wife and I joined another couple for New Years Eve dinner at Portalli's. We arrived at 7:30pm (our reservation was 7:45) and enjoyed a cockatil at the bar before dinner. The specialty drinks seemed interesting but I opted for wine. The wife got an orange-crush type drink and it was surprisingly tasty (I'm not much for fru-fru cockatils but it was pretty good). We were seated after the cocktails and were warmly greeted by our server (don't remember the name but a pleasant big guy with a goatee) and were given a well-articulated rundown of the menu. There was also a special New Years menu we were given the option to choose for $50 with four courses including dessert. My wife and I both got that and our less adventurous friends ordered off the regular menu. Without describing every single dish we got (mainly because I don't remember everything due to 2 bottles of wine), I will say that the 3rd course Monkfish Ossobucco special (very interesting concept) was amazing, my wife loved her lungini with roasted vegetables (2nd course I believe), and the other couple enjoyed their dishes very much, including the spaghetti and meatballs which seems to be a point of contention here. I mean she wasn't blown away by the spaghetti, but she was perfectly happy with it. I would also say that the service was impeccable. Even our busboy had a smile on his face as he refilled our water and bread without us ever asking once; definitely a pet peeve of mine when I have to ask for more water, so I was a happy camper. While eating our main course the manager stopped by to ask us how we were enjoying everything which is always a good touch. Now, I'm not discounting anything anybody else is saying about the place, just sharing my experience. Maybe they pulled out all the stops for New Years, maybe they need to work on their consistency and we got the lucky side of the coin, or maybe I don't know a great dining experience form a hole in the wall. All I can say is that I would rank my exerperience at Portalli's right up there with my best dining out experiences in Howard County, including King's Contrivance in its prime and Iron Bridge, and would happily pick Portalli's over driving to Baltimore and paying twice as much for a great meal (including gas, parking, etc...). I hope these guys stick around and iron out whatever issues they are having, because I saw first-hand what this place is capable of and I'd like to see more of it.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I'll have to agree with Craig F's review; we tried Portalli's during the Midnight Madness soft opening and it was a hot (or in this case cold) mess. We waited for about 2 hours for our entrees, when they arrived they were truly inedible. My husband's dish was accompanied by what can only be described as ice cold congealed orange goo - this was supposed to be the sauce. My filet looked like it came straight out of a Lean Cuisine packet, pre-cooked and then stamped with grill marks. The appetizers before dinner were ok, nothing out of the ordinary. We sent the entrees back and were not charged for them, which is fine. It may have been smart to comp a few drinks - we are local, live in the historic district and go out in town all the time. I was hoping to get a good Italian place within walking distance, but we won't be coming back.

Anonymous said...

I went on Midnight Madness with my mom and my sister We shared the mini calzones and the flatbread pizza. I was actually surprised at how different the calzones were from what I had expected. They were very light and crispy - perfect for an appetizer. While I agree that they were a little oily, the taste and texture of the crust made up for it. I had the ceasar salad, which was delicious, and the carbona pasta with the poached egg on top. The pasta was amazing! I wasn't a big fan of the poached egg, but everything else was superb! I tried my sister's duck manicotti and I thought that was tasty as well. We shared the lemon sorbet and the custard with basalmic vinegar. The custard had too much vinegar for my taste, but my mother loved it! The sorbet was a great way to end the meal. Again, very light and refreshing. The wait staff was a little haphazard, but it was extremely busy that night so I kind of expected that. Portions were a little small, but we all ordered different dishes and sampled each others so I didn't end up hungry. I would definitely eat there again. The menu has a little of everything and I would love to try just about everything on it. I'm not a food critique or restaurant expert, but I know what I like. I wasn't there for acoustics or for decor. I went looking for great food, and I feel that Portalli's met all my expectations. I'm sure that the restaurant will continue to get better over time. For just opening, I was quite impressed. Ellicott City needed an italian restaurant and I hope it's there to stay.

Anonymous said...

i really like how anonymous said they agreed with all the problems (plates to small funky service oh yeah they need to iron out this and that) and then goes on to say how wonderful everything is. that tells me that an employee of the restaurant wrote it.

bboyneko said...

I say 4/5 stars. The plates are NOT too small..I wonder if the people who said the portions are small have ever eaten at a nice restaurant before?

The only reason I did not give it 5 stars is that the service is a little bit rusty. To be fair it just opened not that long ago (late December I believe?) and the service was VERY friendly and VERY polite. I only say rusty because of being a little bit forgetful now and then, nothing serious.

The interior of the place is BEAUTIFUL. It has so much charm, perfect for old ellicott city. It feels like you are a dinner guest at someones fancy party. The crowd was varied, I saw an entire family, a birthday party, 20 somethings one dates, a retired couple. If you are worried about how to dress, everyone dressed nice but no suit and tie, just a lot of dress shirts and nice sweaters. Nobody was dressed t-shirt casual.

The wine selection is very nice, the prices very fair (we ordered 1 appetizer, 2 salads, 2 entrees, 3 glasses of wine, 1 desert and 2 coffees for less than $100 after tax..I think it was like 95 or 94 dollars) considering it is a fancy looking place complete with valet parking.

I had the vegetable lasagna and my GF had the meat lasagna and we both liked it very much. The tiramasu was excellent. There is a shortage of good Italian in the area and this is a welcome addition, I wish the restaurant success and we will definitely return.

(also the bruschetta is not be missed)

Anonymous said...

once again a review from the restaurant to look like a customer review. after all who would spend that much time staring at others when your with your "GF". Wife maybe. i too want them to do well. just iron out your kinks step up to the plate and don't lie with fake reviews. (i had the pickled squirrel feet and it was delicious) please and good luck..

Sarah said...

Wow! I don't understand why people are commenting on other people's opinions. What is your problem anyway? Let them say what they want and worry about yourself. Went there with friends for my birthday, had a great time. Will recommend it

bboyneko said...

Anonymous, you are the coward who posts as an anonymous, I have a valid account I am posting from, and a long history of posting reviews on Yelp and the like. I am wondering what the hell your agenda is? Did Portalis kill your mother? Kidnap your dog? Pee on your couch?

HowChow said...

Folks --

I love the comments. I think people do read them, and I like hearing what other people have enjoyed.

Please avoid the personal attacks. Just avoid any critique of other people entirely. Critique the comment. Whatever you want.

I promise that a food blog is not worth any personal smackdowns.


Lee Biars said...

Hi everybody,
Once again, I am a co-owner of Portalli's. Without getting into any arguments (I'm pretty sure this was not HowChow's vision when he started this blog), I would like to clear up a few things:

1) I sincerely want to thank everybody for the comments about their experience at Portalli's. Negative criticism is crucial to us because it shows us where we need to improve. I can honestly say that in 2 months we have improved by leaps and bounds from where we were, and based on the most recent reviews this seems to be the case. I'd also like to thank those that shared their positive experiences (Daniel, Sarah, Joe, Anonymous) and I'm glad we were able to meet or exceed your expectations.

2) We are not putting up fake reviews. That is a baseless accusation that suggests we are dishonest and stuffing the ballot box in our favor. Even more ridiculous is the assertion that, after someone called us out for putting a fake review up, we would come back and do it again! We have no problem accepting a negative review (again, that is how we improve) and I don't mind having them up for everybody to see. Hopefully in the coming months we will earn even more positive reviews and everybody can see how far we've come.

3) I'd like to thank Matt for pointing out our error on the wine list. Without going into specifics, we ended up changing the wine bottling at the last minute but neglected to change the title on the list. The cost of the bottle is still in line with our wholesale price of the regular Chianti, but in the meantime we are serving the Chianti Classico at the regular Chianti price until we get our menus reprinted, even though the Classico costs about twice as much and we are not making much on the bottle. I firmly believe that a menu/wine list is our contract with our guests, so we intend on honoring everything that is on there. There were no ill intentions here, just an honest mistake on our part and we do apologize. Matt, for your troubles if you'd like to come in and pick up a bottle of the Classico on the house to take home with you I'd be happy to arrange that. Just email me at and I'll make it happen.

4) Our #1 goal is to offer Howard County an upscale Italian restaurant we can all be proud of. If you don't like the concept (smaller portions, more courses), I can understand that- it's not for everybody. With coursed dining becoming increasingly popular, we felt this was the best direction to go for a fine dining restaurant. If you're looking for a giant bowl of Fettucini Alfredo that will fill you up for $12, then we are not for you. I fully understand that a smaller portion size will take some people by surprise, but we are as forthcoming about what we offer as we can be. Our servers clearly explain our concept to the best of their ability, and our website explains this in detail as well. I'm not sure what more we can do. We try to clearly identify ourselves as an upscale restaurant, and our 3-4 course pricing is in line with other fine dining establishments in the Baltimore area, if not slightly lower.

5) I'd like to invite anybody that shared a negative experience here to come in and have dinner on me. The last thing we want is somebody thinking we don't care that they did not enjoy themselves, so I'm giving you all a chance to see how far we've come in just 2 months. If you enjoy yourselves then hopefully we have won back your business. If you don't, well it was worth a try and you didn't have to pay for it. Just email me at and let me know which review is yours and when you'd like to come in.

OK, at this point I'm rambling but I felt the need to shed some light on some things about our restaurant (and our scruples) that people are suggesting. Again, our intention is to bring a great Italian restaurant to Howard County, and I hope we are well on our way. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions, comments or concerns-

Anonymous said...

cheers to that me biars! hoco italian!

Unknown said...

Heading to Portalli's tonight with the Wife to try for the first time, and will let folks know what we think. That plus the anniversary event at the Wine Bin sounds like a fun night.

Unknown said...

All in all, we had a pleasant dinner here last night. Here's how everything rated in my book (1-5; 3 being a good "middle of the road", 5 being "Fantastic").

Service: 4 - Wait staff & Hostess were pleasant. Everyone was helpful and dressed sharply.

Atmosphere: 4 - We were seated out of the main room. No acoustic issues, very pleasant.

Appetizers: Mini Calzones were great (5). The Calamari was good (4) once we added a bit of salt.

Salads: My Caesar was very light and flavorful (4), if you are a fan of heavy salads with lots of dressing you may find this too light for your tastes. I prefer to have my salads be more subtle in the dressing department. My Wife's Caprice Salad was pretty good (3). We're a bit spoiled there, as I have a killer recipe that we both love.

Entrees: My Chicken Picatta was good (4). Definitely different than any I had previously experienced. The flavor was subtle, but once I mixed the chicken, sauce and the polenta, it was a good combination. My Wife's Lasagne Bolognese was fantastic (5). Again, this was slightly different than any Lasagne I have ever tasted. The Chef went light on the sauce, but made sure it was flavorful, and went heavy on the other flavors. We both loved it.

All in all, we will probably come back for another "date-night" dinner at some point. Our experience was much more romantic and novel then going to one of the Italian chains that we frequent. Dinner was a bit on the pricey side because of the way the courses are set up, but I felt like the food, atmosphere, and service justified the cost (mostly). I can tell that the chef is trying to make the items more flavorful and less salty than most Italian restaurants. This worked well for a most items, but may put some folks off. I thought it was a good change for the most part.


Unknown said...

And sorry about my name showing up as "Info Systems Engineering Project #2." That was a Google group that I hosted for a class... I thought I fixed that :)

Anonymous said...

To be perfectly honest, the best part of the restaurant is the atmosphere that im assuming came with the building after taking over jordans. The place is definetly overpriced, and for the money I would rather eat at carraba's down the street, as much as i hate chain restaurants.

I waited until the end of january to go there to try it, and was not impressed. very small portions, chain-like waitstaff, and a very noisy dining room. I cant quite put into words, but for $100 for me and my wife, the restaurant and food was not worth it. I wouldn't say no taste, but just not recipes worth opening a restaurant concept on. Not even close.

It doesnt make sense, I do frequent the owners other restaurant diamondback grill, for maybe a beer or a burger for happy hour(great drink specials), but good luck getting a mediocre dinner at either place. I cant imagine why you would possible concieve of opening two, at best, sub par restaurants, (well ones more of a bar), and expect them to succeed.

I think the chefs who know how to cook are smart enough to wait until the economy gets better or are being headhunted by the higher end, upper scale, city restaurants in baltimore/dc. I cant see either of these restaurants making it past the next 2 years.

For gods sake, can anyone open a restaurant in howard county that is any good? I havn't tried the new steakhouse where oz chophouse used to be, does anyone have reviews on them??

Kate said...

I too waited awhile to try out Portalli's. I wanted to give them time to iron out whatever kinks they were experiencing being a new restaurant. According to these reviews...Im glad I did. The food was great! We were there on a Friday night and it was BUSY, packed actually but our food came out in a timely manner, our server was always there when we needed her and was very knowledgable and helped us choose some of her favorites which turned out to be fabulous! Crab flatbread pizza was great, crisp flatbread crab meat, goat cheese (anything with goat cheese wins my vote) and some sort of spicy yummy pepper. We will be back!!

Bob said...

My wife and I went to Portalli's last weekend for our 25th anniversary. I mentioned it was our anniversary when I made our reservation and boy did they take care of us! We were offered glasses of complimentary champagne to start our dinner off and two desserts at the end! Everything was spectacular, service, food, and of course our yummy free desserts. They really made us feel special. A manager even stopped by to wish us a Happy Anniversary and make sure everything was ok. We of course told her it was fabulous and that we would be back. We will!

Anonymous said...

Had the rockfish Sunday night, 2/20/2011. Absolutely fantastic. Would have preferred asparagus to the potatoes, but the food and service was great.

Also, they had every type of wine we wanted. Great wine list.