Portofino. A slice of Sicily right here in Xiamen

Updated: 29 Aug 2009
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Executive Chef Pippo


Quick, name the longest running Italian restaurant in Xiamen! Did you say Portofino? (OK, you saw the title then) If not, don't worry. I had no idea either. I was surprised to find out that Portofino opened up in 1997. Three years ago I ventured into the then Holiday Inn/Crowne Plaza to check out what I read was a very good Italian restaurant. After looking at the prices I then ran out. Hey, I was new in Xiamen and poor at the time. Now three years later and doing much better, I decided to go back and have another look. I was surprised to find out the prices were pretty much about the same and seemed much more reasonable what with all the new high-end western restaurants that have opened up over the last three years. Especially surprising now that the hotel the restaurant is in is the more upscale Millennium chain out of Singapore. I decided to do my typical 3 separate visits to get a feel for the place. However, I enjoyed the meals so much I ended out eating 5 separate lunches over a course of a week!
So what makes Portofino so special? It starts with Executive Chef Pippo (Giuseppe Messina) who comes from the Southern Italian island of Sicily. Ironic in that the name Portofino is a small village in Northern Italy. However, Chef Pippo did not start at Portofino until 2000. Since then though he has created a menu of excellent Italian dishes with an emphasis on Southern Italy where the sauces tend to be more tomato based. I spent a wonderful evening talking with this extremely warm and friendly gentleman. I asked what brought him to Xiamen. He had been working elsewhere in China before 2000 and was told how nice Xiamen was. "I love this clean and beautiful city" was his answer to what has kept him here for nine years. Now, he normally works the dinner hour, so that would be the best time to visit because if you want something special or cooked differently than what's on the menu you just have to ask. Chef Pippo seems to love pleasing people and showed such a passion for food during our conversation.
Due to my work schedule, I was only able to eat lunches at Portofino. There is no special lunch menu, it's the same day or evening. Portofino is located in the cluster of the three separate restaurants in the Millennium Hotel. The large buffet restaurant, the small corner Japanese restaurant, and then Portofino, which is the only one of the three with windows. It's a small unassuming place with white tablecloths, paintings of Italy on the wall, and Italian music playing in the background. Service is very attentive and professional (my water glass was never empty) without being overbearing. The menu is extensive with a list that features regional specialties of Italy that changes monthly. What's very unique is that there is a list of pasta's, like the home made beef filled tortellini and spinach/cheese ravioli I had that, you then combine with from a separate list of twenty different sauces to go with the pasta. The only problem here is that you might pick the wrong sauce for your pasta. If Chef Pippo is not there, you're kind of on your own. I had the wonderful freshly made tortellini, but I overwhelmed it with the meat sauce. I fared much better with the tasty bite sized ravioli's in tomato sauce that was made out of perfectly ripe, sliced cherry tomatoes.
On another occasion I finally had what I have missed since I was back in the U.S. two years ago, chicken parmigiana. "One of the most favorite dishes of Americans, but rarely eaten in Italy" Chef Pippo surprised me by saying. Seems the Italians are not as fond of fried food as Americans. (No surprise I guess) Well true Italian or not, you find this dish everywhere in the U.S., and Chef Pippo's was one of the best I've ever eaten. A lightly fried, tender chicken breast covered not just with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce, but also ham, Mmmmm. It came with a side of freshly steamed vegetables and french fries. Though you can get pretty much anything you want as a side item. Mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, pasta, you name it! At 90 Yuan it might not have been cheap, but it was one of the best meals I've had since being in Xiamen.
Since Chef Pippo is from southern Italy, no menu would be complete without cannelloni! More of that wonderful home made pasta surrounding perfectly flavored minced beef with a hint of spinach. Lightly covered in mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce, and bechamel sauce if you like. It was as big as my plate and the egg pasta just melted in my mouth. I do believe this is the only cannelloni in Xiamen.
Chef Pippo said the most popular dish is the lasagna. You can get it with meat or cheese. I ordered the meat lasagna, and for 68 Yuan got a large multi-layered meat filled lasagna covered in meat sauce and cheese. More than enough for one person I was quite filled after eating all of it.
The only slip up was the day I ordered minestrone soup. All my life eating Italian food in America, China, (and even once in Belgium) minestrone soup has always been a thick tomato based, dense textured soup with very boiled-down vegetables. Never being to Italy, I had no idea of anything different. That was until Portofino's. Only 26 Yuan will get you a small bowl of soup with large quantities of diced and lightly cooked vegetables such as carrots and onions, but no tomatoes. I thought they had brought me the wrong soup. However, the second bowl came the same way. I tried it, but sent it back. I thought it was just totally wrong and too oily. Then I had the talk with Chef Pippo. "Minestrone is made differently all over Italy and is many times not tomato based" he said. "In America it's almost always the same, tomato based soup". So there, I learned something and will have to try the soup again with a different frame of mind next time.
Last but not least is the desserts. The chocolate cake was not my favorite. I like a more rich devils food cake. This one was more of a bitter light chocolate mousse with a thin layer of slightly dry chocolate in the middle. I'm not saying it was bad, just not to my taste. The real winner though is the tiramisu. Made in a tall class instead of a baking sheet, it is a deliciously creamy mascarpone blend, mixed with a little armaretto coffee with a layer of espresso soaked lady fingers in the middle. Easily the best tiramisu in Xiamen. At 38 Yuan its also priced within all the others in Xiamen.


Best Tiramisu in Xiamen

So there you have it. A truly high end Italian restaurant run by a true Italian chef that in the end, isn't that high end in prices. Seems most of the Italian chefs have left Xiamen, but Chef Pippo seems to love Xiamen and we should be thankful for that. The menu is so vast and filled with so many dishes no one else serves in Xiamen, you could eat here every day for a month, and still not cover the whole menu. The only real complaint I have is no fault of Chef Pippo. Being this is a hotel run restaurant, there is the standard 15% service charge that goes mostly (if not all, no one could tell me for sure) in the hotel's pocket. I would have no problem with paying it if it all went to the staff, but unlike in the west, it doesn't. But I don't want to end on a sour note. So let me add that I of course also had the pizza. Look for that review when I finish (?) my top ten pizza's in Xiamen journey. Needles to say, it will be in the top ten! BTW, there's even a children's menu. So no reason to leave the kids behind!
Portofino's is open every day for lunch from 12pm till 2pm. Dinner is 6pm till 10pm. Busses that stop almost in front of the Millennium Hotel at Fu You Bao Jian Yuan Zhan are the 2, 3, 8, 10, 11, 12, 19, 27, 32, 51, 99, and Haicang bus 71. Mini busses 503, 526, 531, and 533. The address is 12-8 Zhenhai Lu 镇海路12-8号. The phone number is 202-333 ext. 6601/6607.
Ciao Bella,


SOURCE: By Jay, American food critic in Xiamen

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