Update 12/13: It has been confirmed that the Porta people are opening in Newark as The Monk Room, as well as at 135 Newark Ave in Jersey City. Here are some thoughts on a visit to The Monk Room (click me). Now back to the original post about the Asbury Park location.
Porta intrigued me from the first time I saw the spray painted sign announcing its opening. Odd indeed, I thought.
Over the course of the next few months, the word was getting out: Porta is making some very good Neapolitan style pizza (and, apparently, incredible octopus). I found this to be the case during my few visits.
It's a funky place, in a warehouse looking space, decorated with some doors (porta, in Italian), with picnic table communal seating (tables made from reclaimed wood from the building, I'm told). Concrete floors, exposed HVAC and ceiling joists. My kind of minimalist thing overall.
First the octopus. Rarely does anything live up to the accolades that you read on the internet. Let's face it, most people are idiots. Most people don't have very much experience with food to know good from bad, interesting from boring, exceptional from commonplace. But those idiots who gushed about the octopus were right (no offense intended, idiots).
You'll generally find octopus at Greek restaurants, where it is treated perfectly well with char and some salty elements. At Porta, the octopus is braised, but very little char is applied. And this dish doesn't need all that char.
You've got some octopus, some potatoes, a pile of thinly shaved fennel in the form of a salad, and an emulsification of olive oil, vinegar, and maybe some mustard, peppered with capers and herbs. This dish is done well. I can't imagine a meal at Porta without this dish.
The octopus is just the appetizer to the entree (a perfect analogy, no?), which is the pizza.
We thoroughly enjoyed the carbonara pizza, what with its guanciale and egg. The crust didn't have much oven spring (the puffiness in the crust that occurs in a hot oven), and seemed almost rolled out (a crime against this style of pizza), although there's no way they are rolling out their dough. But, it was thin, chewy, and crispy. I can see how people like this version of Neapolitan style pizza (which in its most pure form is more of a soupy deal...which is to my liking).
The simple Margherita didn't impress as much. I thought it was lacking seasoning, and was sort of bland overall. In fairness, this was eaten after the Carbonara, which was assertively salty and porky and eggy. A tough one to follow.
On another trip, I had the "14 1/2". This included housemade ricotta and hot soppresata and hot peppers. The heat and the salty meat certainly helped overcome any issue with under-seasoning. The cornicione was nicely formed, with some leoparding (those little black spots that form on the crust with this style of pizza). The pizza came out of the oven in 1 minute 50 seconds, which is pretty fast, although not the 70 or 90 seconds which you sometimes see in Neapolitan pizza cooking.
Porta has something of a cocktail program, but based on the descriptions and what I've had, the drinks tend to be highballs and tall drinks (soda), leaning toward the sweet end of the spectrum. Which sort of makes sense since this is a beach town. I had a pretty good drink which included Milagro silver tequila, tomatoes, hot peppers, and limes, topped with soda water. An elevated Bloody Maria in a way.
The beer list needs an intervention. The wine list is well-priced, with plenty of options by the glass and all-Italian from what I can recall. Why they feel the need to offer Miller Light but not crappy new world Chardonnay is beyond me, but I'm happy they don't serve the latter.
The place always has music fitting the hipness of the vibe and the town. Even though it only has windows on one side, it's bright and airy during the afternoon. Service has been fine. The bartender during my most recent visit was very good. A fella who works there who was doing something unrelated to serving me food was nice enough to show me around the back room where the "club" is. On another visit I saw some guys out back messing with a smoker, and we chatted with them for a while about smoking. Overall a pleasant place to be, and nice folks to be surrounded by.
Rumor has it that the owners are looking to expand not only their book of restaurants ("20 in 20 years"), but also Porta, and are possibly doing something in Jersey City and perhaps even Newark as we speak. That's very good news for the folks of north Jersey, but that's no excuse to not visit Asbury Park, you lazy bastards.
Restore the shore.
Porta : 911 Kingsley St : Asbury Park, NJ : 732.776.7661
It should be noted that my experiences at Porta are limited to lunch. Be warned that the place takes on a totally different vibe at night, from what I've heard.