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Living large at the new Portofino Mediterranean Grill in Clearwater

CLEARWATER

The plate of rigatoni melintzana that we ordered is on the way to the table. I can't see it coming, but I can feel the floor groaning under my feet before the waiter arrives with the dish.

Well, not really a dish. It's more of a platter, so big it requires the things already on the table to be repositioned before it can be presented.

It would be irresponsible to suggest that you should order an entree at Portofino Mediterranean Grill without proper backup.

Portofino is a slick new restaurant on U.S. 19, in the strip mall spot south of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard that was once the home of the original Hops Brewery. It has been a couple of other restaurants since Hops left, but successors didn't change the bones.

Portofino has. The restaurant was gutted and redone with a high-end feel. The half-moon booths along the walls have a luxe look, a wavy blue-lit wall treatment feels a little South Beachy, and cozy furnishings dominate the lounge area. It all has the look of a place that was designed with a lot of thought, and it raises expectations.

But back to the rigatoni.

In the dish ($12, which was a great price when considering what that means per pound) is a bowl of the tubular pasta tossed in marinara with eggplant and garlic and topped with a scoop of ricotta. The menu said there would be olives. We never found any olives, but to be fair, our expedition through this plate left three-quarters of it untouched. Maybe they were in one of the unexplored quadrants.

To be clear, we ate a lot of it, certainly a reasonable portion. There was just so much. And it was good, while we were there. Memories of it didn't inspire us to break into the leftovers we took home, but it was a decent bowl of pasta.

All of the entrees were supersized, though none of the others we tried so much as that rigatoni. Favorites included the grouper d' capri ($18) and the veal marsala ($16). The grouper arrived on two plates, the bigger covered with a rich and zesty lemon-butter-wine sauce with capers, tomato and olives (which weren't mentioned on the menu; maybe they were the ones missing from the rigatoni?) and centered with a large fillet, the smaller plate with the accompanying potato and vegetables.

The veal marsala scored big points with me simply because Portofino does something that I have always considered elemental, but I see at so few Italian restaurants: The kitchen takes the time to make a mushroom sauce fortified with a sweet wine to serve over the sauteed cutlets, and they put that sauce over the pasta as well. I never understand it when a place serves a side of pasta with marinara with a marsala dish. Those flavors counter each other. But here it's right. The veal is side-of-fork tender, the sauce sweet and earthy, and the pasta, well, mountainous. But correctly sauced.

There was a lot to like in the zuppa di mare ($24). The scallops and huge mussels were near perfect, the marinara took on a nice brininess, and there was no grit in the dish, an impressive feat given the amount of shellfish. But the shrimp, clams and calamari seemed overcooked. And the plate should have been beautiful, with all that seafood, but it looked as if it had been inelegantly sloshed onto the plate from the pan.

The appetizer list is an interesting mix, mostly of vegetables and seafood. The fried calamari ($11) is tender rings and tentacles with a spicy marinara, and in the clams casino ($9), the meat is topped with onion, pepper and bacon. Mostly bacon.

Our filet mignon kebab appetizer ($14), with grilled pepper and onion, comes on a bed of onion straws, an addictive addition. The meat was well seasoned and seared, and there is enough to make it an entree.

The wine list is a couple of dozen bottles long, ranging from $18 to $107, and about half are available by the glass.

Our server each night was helpful and friendly, but we had trouble tracking down water refills at times.

Desserts (all $5) were simple but interesting. Housemade tiramisu had a nice hit of coffee, and a simple scoop of Greek yogurt became dessert with the addition of nuts and honey. We didn't have it with the baklava, but I bet they would have been good together.

But if you want dessert, it's going to take a lot of advance planning and takeout boxes.

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Portofino Grill is located between Ulmerton Road and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. A different general location was mentioned in the original story.

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Portofino Mediterranean Grill

18825 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater; (727) 286-6234;

portofinomediterraneangrill.com

Cuisine: Italian, Greek

Hours: 3 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday; 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Details: Amex, V, MC, Discover; reservations accepted; full bar

Prices: Entrees $10 to $26, appetizers $5 to $17

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★★1/2

Service: ★★

Atmosphere: ★★★

Overall: ★★1/2

Living large at the new Portofino Mediterranean Grill in Clearwater 01/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 2:17pm]

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