Alfred Portale has a big reputation to uphold. As iconic American restaurant Gotham Bar & Grill’s chef for 34 years, he’s won three James Beard awards, gotten five three-star reviews in the Times, and held one Michelin star since 2006. Now he’s taking that firepower to a venture of his own, Portale, a modern Italian restaurant in Chelsea that opens Friday, November 15. The stakes are high for Portale, and he knows it.
“We’ve been getting hundred and hundreds of calls and emails asking, ‘When are you opening? There are a lot of people who are very anxious about seeing what we’re going to do down here,” he says.
This is something he’s been wanting to do for years, and he’s ready. The eponymous Portale — located at 126 West 18th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues — focuses on Portale’s Italian background and desire to run something smaller and more casual. As a bid to stand out among New York City’s hundreds of Italian restaurants, and to set Portale apart from his past work, he created an entirely new set of dishes.
“There is no shortage of Italian restaurants, but when people ask me where to go, it’s a short list,” he says. “A lot of the restaurants have similar menus.”
His menu is split up into five familiar sections — cicchetti (snacks), antipasti (appetizers), primi (pastas), secondi (meats and fish), and contorni (vegetables) — but Portale is keeping as much local and seasonal as possible, working his longtime connections at the nearby Union Square Greenmarket. His twists on dishes include arancini that’s a play on the flavors from the classic dish orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe, as well as a carpaccio that uses short rib instead of the standard filet. The kitchen is also milling local grains for the housemade breads, pastas, and polenta.
The full menu is below — pricing is not complete — but also includes such dishes as meatball sliders; roasted fennel salad with black rice, blood orange, and pistachios; and that short rib carpaccio with arugula, pecorino cheese, and an anchovy caper emulsion. For pasta, there’s a white duck bolognese garganelli and risotto carbonara, while entrees include a branzino with delicata squash, red swiss chard, and sundried tomatoes.
Executing is a team with a lot of experience: His co-chefs de cuisine Jacinto Guadarrama and Adam Longworth come from Gotham, along with pastry chef Kaity Mitchell, who’s doing all the breads and desserts. Wine director Steven Washuta has put together a 600-bottle wine list mainly sourced from Italy, but France and the U.S. as well.
Portale also had a heavy hand in the design, working with firm INC Architecture & Design to go for a look inspired by famed Italian architect Gio Ponti. There’s a lot of marble, burled walnut wood, and brass touches in the 114-seat restaurant. It opens with a bar room that leads into a dining room with an open kitchen. Upstairs lies a 40-seat private dining room.
It’s all very personal for Portale, who despite being one of the city’s most accomplished chefs, has not opened a new restaurant here in decades. He knows what he’s up against.
“It’s very hard with the current costs in the city to be profitable or greatly profitable, but I want to be the exception to the rule,” he says. “What I’m hoping is that the menu mix, the quality of the ingredients, the environment, all those things will stand out and be special. And certainly my reputation doesn’t hurt.”
Portale will be open Monday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m, Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.