By Steve Hacker
Porcini  has been well-liked since it opened in 1992 and receives consistent mention as one of the city’s most popular Italian restaurants — a place where you might run into Rick Pitino and you’ll probably meet a few of your friends. On each of my three recent visits (where I indeed knew some of the patrons), it drew an animated crowd. And while I certainly saw some things that showed why Porcini is popular, I experienced a few more that made me wonder if the popularity can be sustained.On the plus side are Porcini’s people. From the reception desk to the wait staff, I saw an easy, welcoming attitude and a real dedication to pleasing the customer. The managers and the owner, Tim Coury, circulated among the patrons, and even waiters engaged in conversations with customers without affecting service. That kind of personal attention has a real charm, and is a credit to the management.
Also, as a person of a certain age, I have to admire Porcini’s soft lighting — the kind of illumination favored by Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer. While it detracted from how I saw the food on my plate, I think it made me (and everyone else in the place) look great. Despite the atmosphere, however, I didn’t think Porcini succeeded that well on the food end—perhaps this Frankfort Avenue mainstay is coasting a bit on its charm and its laurels.
My Ravioli alla Fiorentina ($16) was Porcini’s version of a classic Northern Italian dish — the restaurant’s focus. But my serving of pasta was gummy and unattractive. The pink pepper cream sauce and pale red marinara didn’t work well together, and the spinach ricotta filling didn’t seem fresh. Pappardelle e Funghi con Vitello ($19) was better. The ragù of veal and redwine came through with most of the hearty flavor I was hoping for, helped by chunks of carrot, tomatoes and mushrooms — but still, I thought, needed the help of grated Parmesan cheese. A grilled Romaine salad ($7.50) was tasty, as were its vinaigrette, croutons and marinara sauce. But the un-split head gave me less grilled lettuce than the dish deserved.
The highlights of my visits were found in the menu’s appetizer section. My favorite was Fondi di Carciofi Fritti ($9). These Parmesan-crusted, lightly fried artichoke hearts were a glowing, palegreen-gold, dusted with more Parmesan and paired with a ramekin of lemon and roasted garlic aïoli. I liked how the citrus brought out the artichoke flavor, and its contrast with the crisp cheese crust and creamy garlic mayonnaise. Another appetizer, the Bruschetta con Funghi ($8) was a bit tricky to handle —but enjoyable in a guilty, indulgent way. Instead of the expected thin husks of crisp grilled bread, my Porcini bruschetta was made of two-inch slabs of grilled baguette slathered with melted cheese and topped by a dark mound of sautéed mushrooms. It definitely called for a steak knife — and sharing it with friends over a beer would be a good way to enjoy this salty, gooey, ’shroomy dish.
However, another Porcini classic, the Pollo e Carciofi pizza($14) didn’t inspire me to push a slice on friends. The combination of grilled chicken breast, artichoke and pesto has been on the Porcini menu since 1992,and the flavor combination seemed dated — the pizza’s construction seemed perfunctory at best, with dull-tasting pesto and bland, soggy artichoke hearts. I would try another of the popular pies next time around.
On each of my recent visits, the staff spoke knowledgeably about the specials and menu items, offered advice, listened to some lame jokes and got dishes on and off my table quickly, efficiently and unobtrusively. I only wish they could have served something more inspired than my Vitello al Polpette ($9), a dull rendition of a classic. The meatballs were dry, with a too-salty sauce and a limp, lost portion of fennel bulb.
In contrast, the Bistecca Strisciata ($29) was a nice stripsteak cooked to order, with crisp grilled cipollini onions and Gorgonzola butter. As with the steak, the kitchen did a good job grilling the lamb chops in my Agnello e Risotto ($29). They were nice and crusty outside, pink and pleasantly flavorful inside. However, the accompanying risotto was, to my mind,a terrible waste of good Sheltowee Farm mushrooms. Its surprising gray color and gummy texture didn’t measure up to the savory meat served with it.
For dessert, I found an Italian Cream Cake ($6) attractive and tasty. (I learned later that it came from Desserts by Helen .) The housemade tiramisù ($6) had a decent flavor, but it was plated without ceremony, lacking that little extra pizzazz that leaves a pleasant impression. The tiramisù summed up Porcini for me. As I enjoyed my refills of dessert coffee and watched the staff easily engage other customers, I saw a place where familiarity won out over food. And while it provides a great night out for many (the way Porcini bustles certainly shows that), I think the crowds would really respond to a little more focus on what comes out of the kitchen.
If You Go
Porcini, 2730 Frankfort Ave., 894-8686. Open Monday throughThursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30-11:00 p.m.