There’s a lot of talk about rights around the traps these days. Gays should have the right to marry. Americans should have the right to free health care. Islamic radicals should have the right to decide what is and isn’t funny (and if you have to ask, it isn’t). To the Prick’s way of thinking, the only true “rights” are universal ones, ones that don’t cost anyone else a cent: that’s why America’s Bill of Rights is such genius. Freedom of speech, assembly, and religion don’t need anyone else to foot the bill; the point is not that something’s being given to the people, but rather that the government is committed to staying out of the way. A right to free medical care, a job, a place to live? That’s when things get messy.
Stil, there is one “positive right”, as the political philosophers call them, which really ought to be enshrined in the Constitution of any civilised nation, if not bedded down in one or another UN convention. That is the right to a good local Italian joint. Especially when like the Pricks, one lives just over the road from Leichhardt, one of Sydney’s great Italian neighbourhoods.
Yet as so often is the case with “Little Italys” around the world, in such a place actually good Italian food is hard to come by. It is as if a local Catherine de Medici married some spiv from the city thirty years ago and took all the good Italian food to the CBD and points east. Nevertheless, the Pricks keep trying. Recently we liked Aperitivo’s starters and pizzas, but not enough in the way of pasta. So too tired to cook the other night, Mrs Prick and myself made our way over to Norton Street to check out Portofino which, by the looks of its menu and other reviews looked promising.
Given that the place was heaving with people, indeed turning would-be diners away at the door this particular Saturday, they do seem to have a commercially-winning formula, even if what is ultimately turned out is uninspiring. What you see is what you get: Pizzas done up the front, dough worked into those depressing little tins rather than slid straight onto the stone; pastas put together in the kitchen out the back. To their credit, Portofino offers a really reasonable – barely marked-up over bottle shop prices – little wine list as well as proper Italian beers including real Peroni and the Prick’s favourite, Menabrea. Sadly, against these charms and authenticities sits a flip-top bowl of sawdust cheese in the middle of the table. And on the night we visited, to what I would hope is the chef’s everlasting shame, a “special” everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink risotto. Here I cannot imagine what the chef was thinking: sautéed shallots, smoked salmon, roasted butternut squash, herbs, and avocado. WTF? Few of these things go together, fewer belong in a risotto.
Anyway, we were already seated, and what could we do except brace ourselves every time the waitress came barrelling down the stairs behind us with all the force of Aunt Bunny on the Fourth of July? For Mrs Prick, it was a surprisingly vegetarian evening: penne ai funghi. Fine, nice, but something that anyone with a box of Barilla, a jug of cream, and some dried mushrooms could knock up in fifteen minutes (though, admittedly, this was the point of the evening: as Homer Simpson famously asked, “Can’t someone else do it?”). For the Prick, duck ravioli, an old favourite from back when Carpaccio (later La Fontana) was still open down towards the Parramatta Road end of things. There wasn’t much filling to be found in between the thick pasta sheets – these parcels were more likely made by machine than around a table by a bunch of kerchief ‘ed nonnas out the back – swimming in a ragu that had some nice ducky chunks but which was also too sweet and shallow in flavour for my taste.
None of this disqualifies Portofino as the sort of place to take the family for pasta and pizza; think of it as fast food, still decent value for money even if it doesn’t rise to the level of great local trattoria.