Off the Beaten Path In Port Chester
…And Worth the Detour
It’s easy to pass by Piero’s Italian Restaurant. Unlike the majority of Port Chester’s eateries, located on the village’s main street, this 55-seat restaurant sits off the beaten path on South Regent Street. And it doesn’t look all that inviting. There’s the dÃ©cor—or lack of it. Piero’s modest white stucco exterior, adorned with two plain flower boxes, doesn’t convey much promise for an extraordinary dining experience.
Of course, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and, once my foursome (my magician girlfriend and a Manhattan couple) stepped through the front door into a tiny, two-stool bar, our fears of having a mere common dining experience were allayed. This dining room is busy. True, it’s Saturday night, and any restaurant worth its menu would be busy. But, on a second visit on a Tuesday in late August, Piero’s was nearly as full.
And the busy scene is not of the hectic and loud type you might encounter at an impersonal chain restaurant; it’s rousing and warm, like a holiday celebration at your Aunt Mary’s house, overflowing with convivial banter, good cheer, family and friends and a few dreamy-eyed couples.
I’m impressed with the attentive service from the beginning, which starts when our server brings toasty Italian bread and a bottle of full-bodied Valiano Chianti, with which he fills our glasses intermittently during dinner. Exacting service, despite the high table demand and cramped quarters, is part of what makes Piero’s so popular. Like supporting actors in a play, the servers materialize on cue, do their part, then step backstage. Water glasses are filled. Need more bread? No hand gestures are necessary; a full, warm basket arrives.
While the service is to be commended, the food yields mixed results. Piero Rosaspina, who does some of the cooking and who owns the 10-year-old eatery (sons Andre and Peter are managers), offers well-portioned and well-priced items (only two entrÃ©es pass the $20 mark) found on the menus of many regional Italian restaurants—ravioli, rigatoni, calamari, and the requisite marinara, Alfredo and Marsala sauces.
For appetizers, bypass the under-seasoned stuffed mushrooms and standard cold antipasto plate for the hot antipasto plate, which features tender shrimp, stuffed clams, mussels and the best of the assortment: steaming, delicate coils of zucchini and eggplant rolled in red sauce and mozzarella cheese. A break from the familiar Italian starters is the classic Roman dish stracciatela, a light chicken broth-based spinach and egg-drop soup. Piero’s version would have Romulus and Remus applauding. The tri-color salad (endive, radicchio, arugula) sported large healthy leaves, but the dressing was too sweet and had an overly viscous consistency.
Fish, prepared in the classically simple Italian style, is the restaurant’s forte. The best were the mussels possilipo appetizer, fresh and cooked impeccably well in a marinara and garlic sauce, and a seafood combination “alla livornese,” a jumble of calamari, clams, mussels and shrimp. The latter dish quickly depleted our breadbasket; the juices of the cooked fish mingling with the accompanying light marinara sauce demanded multiple dips of the crusty slices. An entrÃ©e special, a grilled salmon piccata, missed the perfection label only by a tad too much salt.
Other winning entrÃ©es included a rigatoni alla ruvo (pasta, boneless chicken pieces and broccoli in a white wine and garlic sauce) and chicken capricciosa (Marsala wine with mushrooms, pimentos and artichokes). Less impressive were the tough veal medallions and too-salty prosciutto in the saltimbocca alla Romana, and the tortellini in an Alfredo sauce the consistency of skim milk.
The weakest selections on Piero’s menu were the desserts: a dry ricotta cheesecake, an amaretto cake with no kick (had we unknowingly ordered the kiddie version?) and a nondescript tartufo, a chocolate-covered ball of vanilla and chocolate Italian ice cream. The only standout was the pineapple sorbet, a creamy fruit-sweet indulgence served in a hollowed-out pineapple half. Our disappointment with the desserts was somewhat alleviated by the complimentary glasses of Italian liqueurs.
“Fine dining begins here” is the credo written on Piero’s “to go” menu, and, for that to really ring true, some polishing needs to be done. A pastry chef is necessary, the dÃ©cor needs to match the stellar service (I think they borrowed Aunt Mary’s curtains), and the smallish wine list (32 bottles) could use more variety. Still, what would be the chance of getting a table here ever again?
PIERO’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT
44 South Regent St., Port Chester
Tue. to Fri. 12-2:30 pm
Tue. to Thurs., 5-9:30 pm,
Fri. 5-10:30 pm,
Sat. 2-10:30 pm,
Sun. 2-9:30 pm