This summer, Eater reported that over one thousand restaurants in New York City had closed due to economic hardship as a result of the pandemic. As the months progressed and the Delta variant refused to subside, this number has only escalated. So when a restaurant in our neighborhood demonstrates that it is thriving, it should be promoted ... and celebrated.
Portale opened in Chelsea, at 126 West 18th Street, just prior to COVID-19 shutting pretty much everything right back down again. But Alfred Portale, the world-renowned chef whose career vaulted into celebrity at the Michelin-starred, James Beard-awarded and New York Times-lauded Gotham Bar & Grill, retained his loyal following of clientele after his departure from the iconic location. With their support, alongside a dextrous pivot to outdoor dining and a brisk takeout and delivery component, his eponymous restaurant was able not only to subsist, but eventually flourish.
Which brings us to where we were are, now, as pandemic restrictions ease and some glimmers of normal New York City life start to reemerge. Portale, again at the forefront, is encouraging the re-opening momentum by launching an amplified happy hour with the “Art of Apertivo.” True to the Italian custom celebrating that blissful respite after a long workday and in anticipation of a robust dinner, Portale has expanded their accommodations at the bar with distinctive Italian generosity: their happy hour is not just one hour, but one and a half, running from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. every Tuesday through Friday. Chef Portale has created a special menu of tantalizing cicchetti, or small bites, with a cosmopolitan flair. Classics like fig and burrata crostini and herb-baked little neck clams coexist with more unconventional options like Italian-style tuna taco and meaty sliders sandwiching rich ricotta meatballs and gooey mozzarella.
And it would not qualify as an apertivo, nor a very happy happy hour (and a half) without some beverage specials. Head Bartender Lexi Cassitto has developed a beautiful array of seasonally-tweaked cocktail classics (all $12) to pair with the snacks, which are exclusive to the bar, although the full menu can also be had at one of its fourteen seats (and a fetching little alcove two-top if you’re lucky). Cassitto, a native New Yorker, is a self-proclaimed whiskey drinker herself; one of her favorites is the Nebbia, a heady connotation of local Ragtime Rye and Earl Grey with infused sweet vermouth and amaro, or the Madrina, a feminine spin The Godfather with aged white port instead of sherry. Lighter palates will go for the Rametta, which she created with her mother in mind: a vibrant mix of vodka, limoncello and rosemary. There are also a $10 red, white, rosé and sparkling by the glass, or a $6 Peroni to appease the beer drinkers.
Another Italian tradition is the Sunday Supper, recently introduced to encourage this celebratory feel, and also nurture a sense of family and community in the restaurant. The menu has a homey, rustic vibe, featuring big plates with big flavors. Comforting one-pot dishes like zesty Chicken Cacciatore and lusty braised shortribs with Brussels sprouts and squash anchor the menu, alongside hearty pastas like the Lumache with bolognese bianco, or Agnolotti with sheep’s milk ricotta, pignoli and pesto.
Always cognizant of the little ones, Chef has included a very affordable $20 Kid’s Menu” complete with kid-friendly options: homemade spaghetti and meatballs, and even chicken fingers and fries, with ice cream to finish.
For Thanksgiving, a three-course Tacchino Box was available for pick-up and delivery, including American classics with a distinct Italian wink: think cranberry conserva and roast turkey with a duck confit/sour cherry stuffing. Given its overwhelming popularity, keep an eye out for a similar option in the works for Christmas Eve, with similarly festive Italian take on traditional Yuletide fare.
Portale was able to succeed in the rockiest moments of the pandemic due to two things: the loyalty of Chef’s fans and staff, many of whom followed him from Gotham. But more important is his recognition of this, and the determination to give back to the community that business depends on for survival. It is normal for Italians to conjure up a sense of unity and bonding around food, and Portale is stepping up its game to embrace that sentiment in Chelsea itself.