Osso Buco Me? Osso Buco You!

You're taking a chance when you order the osso buco at Portofino. We suggest the snapper.
Troy Fields

"If you don't like it, there's the door. Pay your bill and go. And don't come back," says Alex Salmassi, the owner of Portofino Ristorante Italiano, pointing to the exit. I seem to have a knack for getting myself thrown out of restaurants.

This time, the fracas is over a plate of osso buco. Instead of the usual marrow bone enveloped by tender veal, I was served two small rounds of meat surrounding four skinny bones. So I asked the waiter if this was osso buco, or if he had brought me another dish by mistake. And I also asked him what kind of rice they used in the risotto, because it looked weird.

My impertinence earned me an audience with the owner who, as it turned out, was eating dinner a few tables away.

"You have a problem with the osso buco?" the slender, dark-haired young man began. I explained that I was used to a single large shank in my osso buco, not a collection of bones, but he quickly cut me off.

"Let me ask you something: What is osso buco?" Salmassi said, as if he were dealing with a small child.

"Veal shank," I replied.

"And how is it cooked?" he asked, his head moving backward and forward like a rooster's.

"It's braised," I said.

"And what's in the sauce?" he continued with his little quiz.

"It can be cooked in all kinds of sauces," I told him.

"No," he said adamantly. Then he delivered his big punch line with a whispered rage reminiscent of early Al Pacino. "When you know what osso buco is, then you can talk to me about my osso buco."

"You trying to tell me I don't know what osso buco is?" I countered in disbelief.

"This is our signature dish; everybody loves it," he said.

"This pile of skinny little bones is your signature dish?" I asked, gesturing at my plate. That's when Salmassi pointed to the door. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted.

I took Alex Salmassi's advice to heart. Not only did I pay the entire bill and leave (after tipping the waiter generously), I also took some time to learn exactly what osso buco is.

According to Barron's Food Lover's Companion, osso buco is an Italian dish made of veal shanks braised with olive oil, white wine, stock, onions, tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, carrots, celery and lemon peel, and it's traditionally served with risotto. There are lots of variations, such as white osso buco made without tomatoes. And countless other versions are served by modern Italian restaurants in the United States, which seldom follow the strict formula.

Portofino's risotto, made with long-grain rice instead of the traditional arborio, is awful. And their osso buco sauce has too many tomatoes in it. But regardless of the risotto or what's in the braising sauce, the osso buco I was served at Portofino was made from a poor cut of meat. Maybe Salmassi figured if he threw me out, his problems would go away.

But while I was waiting for the bill, I asked the busboy to pack up the plate of osso buco in a Styrofoam to-go container. A few days later, I took that container to the corporate headquarters of Martin Preferred Foods, one of the state's top veal suppliers. Without mentioning the name of the restaurant, I showed the meat and bones to sales and marketing manager John Walker and sales rep Mike Disney and asked them for their observations.

"If you ordered osso buco for $24.95, and this is what you were served, what would you do?" I asked the veal experts.

"I'd send it back," said Disney.

Opening a veal supplier's brochure, they showed me photos of veal shank and explained the grades. Top-end restaurants use only the tender, meaty hindshank for osso buco, Disney said, pointing to a picture of the thick marrow bone surrounded by veal I expect when I order osso buco. At Martin Preferred Foods, they get around $11 a pound for the good stuff.

"Cost-conscious restaurants" substitute the foreshank for the hindshank, the meat man continued, pointing to another picture. The foreshank is a tougher cut from the calf's front shin that can be identified by the pair of bones that run through it. It sells for around $7 a pound.

"So this must be foreshank," I said, pointing to the squarish bones in my Styrofoam container.

"Yes," Disney agreed. But the foreshanks in the catalog were nearly as big as the hindshanks. And the ones served to me at Portofino were much smaller. I asked how that could be.

"They probably aren't center-cut," he told me, referring to the meatier, thicker part of the shank. A restaurant that's really cutting corners also can buy the entire foreshank cut "end to end," he said. But when they do, they get smaller end scraps along with the pieces cut from the center.

So how much does end-to-end veal shank go for? "We don't even sell it," Walker told me. When pressed, he estimated it might cost somewhere around $5 a pound.

Odds are most of the customers who order osso buco at Portofino get a decent-sized veal foreshank. But I had the great fortune to get a portion made up from two smaller end pieces. And no one who knows osso buco is going to be happy with such scraps.

The osso buco and risotto at Portofino are a bad joke. And the owner's behavior is, how shall we say, a little troppo. But I highly recommend the restaurant for its incredible fresh seafood.

Portofino is located about a mile from the Kemah Boardwalk. On my first visit, I stopped off in old Kemah before dinner to check out the seafood stores. The shrimp and fresh fish fillets looked fantastic that day, and so did the live crabs. I wished I'd brought along a cooler.

As you can imagine, Portofino has its pick of this bounty. The red snapper Milano is a big slab of Gulf red snapper pan-fried until the edges are crispy but the middle is moist, and served with a topping of fresh shrimp and lump crabmeat cooked in butter.

Okay, it's not the most original dish I've ever eaten, but with fish this fresh, who cares? The crab finger appetizer, an oval dish crowded with more than a dozen little preshelled crab lollipops drowned in a white wine, lemon and garlic butter sauce, is the best starter on the menu. On my first visit, I got redfish topped with shrimp, crab and tomatoes as an entrée. It was also tasty, but not nearly as exciting as the red snapper.

I won't be going back to Portofino, but if you're looking for good eats down by the bay, I recommend giving it a try. A few words of caution: Think of going to Portofino for dinner like going to the movies or a play. In order to enjoy yourself, you need to be willing to suspend disbelief.

In the light of day, you'll notice that the restaurant resides in a rickety house shabbily decorated with fake palm trees and other plastic plants. But in the dim light of the evening, when they turn on the Christmas lights on the porch overlooking the marina, with a little imagination it can seem quite romantic.

Be sure to stick with the seafood. Even the innocuous-sounding green bean salad is awful. And forget about the bread. It looks like a crusty Italian loaf, but it crumbles when you take a bite.

If you get the spiky-haired young waiter who reads the specials off the blackboard with a phony Italian accent, resist the temptation to ask where he's from. (He was born in Galveston and reared in nearby Santa Fe.) If you play along, he'll do this goofy Italian accent all night long for your entertainment.

But if you really want to see a great dramatic performance, complain about the food to Alex Salmassi.

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