You may already recognize the name. Porta Via's flagship store has been on California Boulevard in Pasadena for close to six years. The San Marino shop opened fairly recently. The new one has the same glorious sandwiches, the same fabulous salads and pastas, and many of the same menu items originally conceived by Octavio Becerra of Palate Food + Wine fame. Now residents and workers south of Glenarm can access these goodies in a snap.
Half the size of the Pasadena store, the San Marino shop is just as charming. A few outdoor tables with wicker-backed chairs sit atop tile floors under Italianate arches and overlook the quaint Mission Street shopping district. Moms with strollers, men in business suits, and ladies who lunch look equally at home here. Inside, oversized photos of the food-purveying ancestors of co-owners John Weithas and Victor Ciulla smile down on the family business.
Ciulla brought his expertise from years at Pasadena's Twin Palms restaurant. He also brought the renowned Caesar salad recipe from the nearby and now defunct Delacey's Club 41. And what a Caesar salad it is. A thick, gutsy dressing made with Italian anchovies coats the cold Romaine lettuce, Parmesan cheese and crispy but light croutons. (You can buy this and quite a few other homemade dressings from their refrigerated section.)
Other salads are equally impressive. Garbanzos and cherry tomatoes explode with more flavor than you'd expect in the ceci bean salad ($6.99 a pound). Marcona almonds and macerated cranberries stand out in the delicately sweet farro salad ($10.95 a pound). The Brussels sprouts and pancetta salad has a slightly smoky flavor ($6.95 a pound).
Protein-based salads typically find themselves inside bread. In sandwiches like the crab salad, Italian tuna salad or the lemon caper chicken salad, the true taste of crab, tuna or chicken sings in the spotlight while the background flavors provide harmony. The breads they come on (Italian rolls, slices of brioche, ciabatta) are fresh and, when made into panini, grilled to perfection.
Eating these light meals in store was pleasant, but what really blew my mind was the food I brought home and heated up. The lasagna with crumbles of sweet Italian sausage ($12.99 a pound) was like a savory pastry. The ricotta was impossibly fluffy, the pasta eggy, the sauce divine. The delicious nine-ingredient meatball — the size of a tennis ball ($10 a pound) — must have been steamed to give it that moist but stable texture. Be sure to accept the marinara they offer on the side. It's a simple, satisfying sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes and herbs.
They use the same exquisite ricotta (and maybe some mascarpone?) in their made-to-order cannoli. Individual ($1.75) or large ($3.50), the sweetened filling is piped into the rolled cookie just before serving, keeping it crispy and creamy till the last bite. It goes well with their authentic cappuccino ($2.75).
The salad bar is popular here as well. Employees build it for you with your choice of six ingredients ($9.50). While they have a number of friendly, well-informed servers at both Porta Vias, I question the order-taking and order-fulfillment system here. There can often be a long line at the counter, and the person wanting only an iced tea sometimes has to wait for the person ordering for an office meeting. I guess it gives you time to decide what you want, but I wouldn't be happy if I were in a hurry.
At the Pasadena store, imported and domestic wines and beers are available by the glass or bottle. I hear some people stop in for a glass after work, mulling over what to bring home for dinner while they sip. You'll have to sip an espresso or lime julep at the San Marino store, but be sure to leave via the porta with something for dinner.
Where: Two locations: 2507 Mission St., San Marino; 1 W. California Blvd., Pasadena
When: Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Sandwiches, panini and salad bar $7.95 to $9.95; antipasti, pasta and side salads, $6.95 to $23.99 a pound
Contact: (626) 441-7600; portaviafoods.com
LISA DUPUY has reviewed more than 150 area restaurants. She welcomes comments at LDupuy@aol.com.