PortaBella Restaurant Carmel By The Sea- Best Italian Restaurant in Carmel
As its name suggests, the best Italian restaurant in Carmel features a beautiful wooden door that transports you right into a Snow White fairy tale, complete with adorable flower pots, wrought iron trellises and cobblestone walkway.
If “charming” had a picture with it in a dictionary, this restaurant in Carmel would be that picture. The most appropriate description of PortaBella is that of an Italian bistro, serving the best Italian food in Monterey by actual Italian chefs. PortaBella’s owner, Mr. Faisal (don’t quote me on this spelling), is as charming as his restaurant, often circling the dining room to thank guests for coming, chatting about everything under the sun and on a slow night, he’ll sometimes pour a small glass of port for you at the end of your meal.
Both from chatting with Mr. Faisal myself and from overhearing conversations he’s had with other guests, I came to have a deeper appreciation for PortaBella’s history. Mr. Faisal was mentored by an older Italian gentleman named Giovanni decades ago prior to opening PortaBella. In brief, their friendship was a great one and when Giovanni passed, the loss was deep enough that Mr. Faisal always mentions him in passing conversation.
In a world filled with modernization and chains, I admit I’m a huge fan of one-off restaurants with stories we can all relate to. Those stories and spirits imbue a restaurant’s ambiance in ways you can feel the moment you sit down, in ways you can hear in the particular kind of din a culturally rich place boasts of even on quiet nights, or perhaps, especially on quiet nights.
Wall sconces scattered throughout along with candlelight at each table create romantic lighting but not so dim you can’t see what’s on your plate, which brings me to the main star of this lovely Carmel restaurant. The food here is every bit as charming and real as the ambiance and staff. It’s simple, home Italian cooking without nonsensical embellishments.
Before any part of your orders arrive, freshly baked and piping hot bread comes out with a house made pesto sauce. I know a lot of folks are obsessed with the whole gluten-free diet but I don’t have Celiac disease fortunately, so I don’t buy into all that hype. I’m a firm believer in everything in moderation. At a gorgeous bistro that does food right, you better believe I’m going to indulge in that freshly baked bread. When was the last time you encountered a restaurant that serves up freshly baked hot bread? Even most of the Michelin starred restaurants no longer do that or the ones still serving bread have become complacent about warming it. They come stale, hard and barely palatable. The last exceptions to this I remember are Le Bernardin and Restaurant Daniel, both in New York, but those two are world class restaurants that take attention to detail to a whole new level.
At PortaBella, start with the divinely smooth Cream of Mushroom Soup or the locale-centric Corn and Crab Bisque, both excellent. If you’re a fan of cheese platters, go for the Assiette de Fromage which comes with a savory Onion jam. If you haven’t had onion jam, you must try it with the cheeses. In my opinion, it’s a far stronger match than the clichéd fig jam.
If your love lies with the salads, PortaBella does beautiful salad plates that for some, could be considered large enough as an entrée. From the house-cured salmon (always a favorite of mine) to the healthy beets and traditional Pear and Blue Cheese salad, there’s something for every taste bud.
At local bistros like PortaBella, I become a creature of habit after the first few visits. Every other time I go there, I choose the Rosemary Roast Chicken because frankly, it’s one of the best in Northern California. As someone who makes pretty darned good roast chicken at home, I am extremely picky about restaurant roast chickens. Most of them are so dry I wonder if they cooked them weeks ago. Most of them are also fairly tasteless, signaling chefs who are terrified of seasoning. Every time I encounter such an abomination of a roast chicken, I wonder if the chefs realize humanity has come a long way since the early days of fire discovery. We’ve also discovered salt, pepper and a myriad of wonderful seasonings. Please use them.
PortaBella’s Rosemary Roast Chicken delivers every single time, moist, juicy on the inside and that delectable crisp skin liberally seasoned, with the obligatory vegetables on the side, the more interesting creamy mashed potatoes, all with a whole grain mustard sauce to drag each piece of chicken through.
Another of my top favorites (though not always on the menu) is their Lobster Ravioli (pictured below). With succulent whole chunks of real lobster, sautéed with wild mushrooms and roasted cherry tomatoes all in a perfectly seasoned lobster cream sauce with basil oil, this dish is an absolute must for seafood and/or pasta lovers. Don’t worry too much about the calories as the dish is portioned well, meaning it’s not large. You don’t finish that plate feeling like you gorged. For some of you, the portion of 4 generously sized ravioli will be enough to give maybe just a couple of bites away to whoever you’re dining with. For others, those 4 will be a perfect entrée.
The menu changes throughout the year but there is always a solid range of choices that include chicken, short ribs, several fish and seafood options and of course, pasta options. It’s not an overwhelming menu but a carefully devised one to ensure every palate has a fantastic option, all staying within the realm of the aforementioned style of solid Italian home cooking plated neatly and simply.
Finish off a great meal with a glass of Prosecco or port, or indulge in fruit tatins, traditional Tiramisu or a number of their seasonal desserts.
The staff are consistently friendly and charming without being obtrusive, tending to your needs without interrupting conversations. Whether you want a quiet meal alone, a romantic date night or a family brunch, PortaBella is perfect and welcoming for all occasions. Music ranges from traditional Italian ballads to fun jazz vocal standards, adding to the charming theme. There’s both indoor and outdoor patio seating for both lunch/brunch and dinner.
I’ve been to this lovely Italian restaurant in Carmel about a dozen times and its charm never wanes. It really is one of those picture perfect settings to enjoy great food with the right company. If you get a chance to visit Carmel during low season, you’ll get to have dinner at PortaBella almost as if it’s your private enclave, save a few other tables occupied by guests equally enthralled at the chance to call this gem their own.
My favorite table for 2 inside, right near the French doors.
As long as it’s not raining, sitting al fresco in the evening is a beautiful, rare treat these days, especially on a street where there are not too many cars. Even better, PortaBella’s outdoor seating is not right on the street as it’s in a little enclave of its own.