By Mia Nakaji Monnier
Special to the Rafu
When Diego Ortolio decided to open an Italian restaurant in Downtown LA on the corner of Fifth and Main, friends told him he was bound to fail.
“They made it sound like I had picked the worst corner in the whole world, and that nobody would come to the restaurant unless we sold fried chicken or tacos,” said the Naples native, who knew little about Downtown apart from what he saw during drives to Little Tokyo with his wife, Atsuko.
A cozy, romantic restaurant that would fit easily on a relaxed, beachfront walk, Portofino Cucina Italiana straddles the boundary between beautiful Historic Downtown to the west and the Toy District to the east.
Some customers continue to echo Diego’s friends’ initial concerns, including writers on the community website, Yelp.
“If [Portofino] were located at Spring and 5th instead of Main and 5th, it’d be packed every night,” Aaron G. wrote, though he still gives the restaurant a five-star review.
Seven months after its grand opening in September, Portofino seems to be holding its own; despite its proximity to less appealing neighborhoods, the friendly Italian eatery has attracted visitors from all across the Southland.
Part of its growing popularity can be attributed to Art Walk: the corner of Fifth and Main lies in the middle of Gallery Row, which floods one Thursday night per month with gallery-hoppers seeking sustenance between exhibitions.
But Portofino’s ability to thrive is due to more than an accident of geography. If diners stumble upon the restaurant because of Art Walk, they return for the carefully crafted Italian dishes and the warm dedication of owner Diego and his wife Atsuko.
Diego is decidedly the more talkative of the two, and gives long, engaging answers to all my questions. Before coming to the restaurant business, he was a heavy metal drummer in a band—first in Italy, then in the United States. The band lifestyle eventually grew tiring, however, with little time to be alone and the constant need to keep up appearances.
“In a band, you have to have a certain look,” he says. “I was the drummer, so I could never wear a shirt, and I always had to be fit.”
After working as a waiter for some time, Diego managed a restaurant; in that position, he came to know his customers personally and watched families grow over time. A lover of food and people, he felt he had found his career.
“After running someone else’s restaurant for six years, I thought, why not have my own?”
Asked if she felt nervous when Diego wanted to open a restaurant, Atsuko thinks for a moment.
“Yes,” she says with a laugh, “but I didn’t want him to have this dream and always wonder what would have happened if he never tried it… I told him it’s okay to fail.” She lets out another good-natured laugh. “Well, it’s not okay! But it’s okay.”
The Ortolis came together under unlikely circumstances: he from Italy and she from Japan, they met on a third continent, while both were on vacation in Canada in 2003. When his friends backed out of their six-week trip at the last minute, Diego found himself suddenly left alone with no plans but an open bus pass. Always the poet, he calls the moment one of those times where “you’re in the middle of the ocean, and you can’t really swim anywhere—all you can do is float.”
While floating, Diego encountered Atsuko, who had come to Canada to work on her English. “She had this carefully-planned itinerary, and I had a bus pass that could go anywhere…” They look at each other and smile, remembering, “So I said, ‘Why don’t I just come with you?’”
As we talk, Atsuko splits her attention between the conversation and the restaurant, her eyes always scanning to see if she can find opportunities to help. When she notices that the crowd has grown too large for the wait staff, she leaves with an apology.
“She has been my greatest ally since starting this business,” says Diego, “and I’m not saying that just because she’s my wife… I know that Japanese people are known to care about their work, and maybe that’s a stereotype, but for her, it’s really true.”
Growing up, Atsuko learned about the business by working as a waitress in her family’s small restaurant in Osaka, and it shows.
“When you work with other people in a restaurant, you see that some of them don’t really want to be there—you know, they don’t want to be waiters, they want to be actors or something. But she is not like that.”
Diego as well comes to the restaurant with tools picked up from family. At one point while he was young, his mother had to start working extra hours, leaving her no time to cook dinner at the end of the day. She would leave instructions for her sons and over time, they learned how to make all their mother’s recipes, which she had learned originally from her mother.
These early lessons still serve as the building blocks for the dishes on Diego’s menu. While the trend of food in Los Angeles moves toward ethnic fusion and food trucks, Portofino takes a different direction.
“I realized that to distinguish myself and my restaurant,” says Diego, “all I had to do was make traditional Italian food, which was nothing new for me.”
Portofino strives to serve authentic Italian food made only with carefully selected ingredients. My companion and I enjoyed the pollo al marsala, or chicken topped with mushrooms and marsala sauce, and scaloppine di manzo alla Piemontese, steak with garlic, parsley, roasted bell peppers, and mozzarella in a white wine sauce. The roasted tomatoes of the insalata della casa melt in the mouth like savory truffles, and the tiramisu is the perfect finish to a delicious evening.
While we eat, a group of what look like former New England frat boys sit at the next table in work clothes.
“Don’t let the low prices scare you,” says the one in the green-and-blue striped tie. “This place is good.” Prices here peak at the $18 filetti al pepe verde e cognac (fillet mignon).
While Portofino awaits its liquor license, customers can bring their own wine or participate in the wine delivery service, through which a selection of wines, hand-picked by Diego, which can be delivered to the table from a local retailer in about ten minutes. Either way, corkage is free.
Lunchtime customers can also try the new $7.99 lunch specials between 11:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. daily.
Though all items on the menu maintain their Italian names, they have detailed English descriptions—and Atsuko promises to interpret for Japanese-speaking customers.
By the time we leave the restaurant, the sun has set and the street lamps have turned on, giving the scene outside a romantic glow. The Art Walk crowd outside is in full-force, and Portofino seems almost at capacity. From here, the corner everyone warned Diego about looks like a thriving hub.
Reflecting on his near-decade in the United States, Diego says, “People come to this country for the ‘American Dream’—and the dream that comes true may not be the dream you had, but you really can accomplish something if you work hard… It’s been an interesting life.”
Atsuko smiles at him. “It’s still interesting, no?”
Portofino Cucina Italiana is located at 464 South Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles. Open daily, 11:30 a.m, to 10 p.m. Call (213) 239-9019 or visit www.portofinocucinaitaliana.com