The last time we dined at 70 State St. in Portsmouth, the restaurant was called The Rosa, a venerable institution that had just reopened after being closed for a year or so during the construction of the new Memorial Bridge just across the street.
My dining companion that night was my son, The Bottomless Pit, and we had a great meal, seated in the corner room of the impressively updated, comfortably contemporary 85-year-old landmark.
Five years later, I was back, seated in the same room, with the same tasteful touches. The restaurant has the same cool bar near the front door, the same open kitchen in the back, the same tall copper-topped wine table in the center of our dining room.
A few things were different this time. First of all, Mrs. Gourmet was my dining companion, not TBP. It was her first visit since a night 24 years ago when we left the weeks-old TBP alone with my parents for the first time.
But the most notable change is that it’s not The Rosa anymore. The Rosa’s second iteration ended last April. Though the familiar neon sign still hangs over the sidewalk, the restaurant is now called Armando’s, which opened in October. It’s one of a handful of Armando’s, and the first outside central Florida.
I don’t remember how long the menu was at The Rosa, but at Armando’s it fills a ledger-size laminated sheet, including appetizers, salads, pastas, stuffed pastas, pizzas and a dozen “secondi piatti” specialties featuring chicken, veal and seafood.
After spending a few minutes studying the menu, we decided to start by sharing an order of Carpaccio di Carne e Pere ($13.95). We’ve never tried this dish before, but we were intrigued by the description of sliced beef, pears, shaved parmesan and gorgonzola sauce.
When the big rectangular platter arrived, we weren’t sure what we were looking at. At the center was a pile of greens with thin slices of pear arranged on top. Surrounding the island of greens and covering the plate was what looked like irregular puddles of tomato sauce sprinkled with the shaved parmesan.
The “tomato sauce” turned out to be the beef — raw, tender, lightly seasoned and so thinly sliced that it looked like liquid on the plate. The greens were peppery (we deduced them to be baby arugula), the pear slices were sweet, and the cheese salty. We saw no gorgonzola, but there was a generous drizzle of olive oil under everything else.
Once we got our bearings, we figured out that combining a bit of each ingredient in every bite made for an insanely good combination. It’s a dish that we would order again in a heartbeat.
For an entree, I chose Pollo Di Tatiana ($20.95) — a sauteed chicken breast and baby shrimp with sun-dried tomatoes in a vodka cream tomato sauce. Served over spaghetti, the chicken was moist, the shrimp was tender, and the sauce was light and fresh-tasting. On the whole, the dish lacked seasoning and was disappointingly bland.
A much more exciting entree was Mrs. G’s Risotto alla Pescatore ($24.95). Less creamy than some risottos we’ve had, rice served as a good base for a fantastic assortment of seafood — little-neck clams, mussels, large shrimp, sea scallops and calamari — and a light tomato/seafood broth. Everything was perfectly cooked and seasoned. The calamari was the most plentiful seafood, and it was unusual in that it included not just rings but suckers, which we haven’t encountered before in all our years as calamari fans. Mrs. G was in heaven from first bite to last, and she pronounced this the best entree she’s ever had.
Having loved two of the three dishes we tried, we decided to press on and order dessert. Both were $6.95.
My tiramisu was a bit of a disappointment. It wasn’t especially moist, and the most present ingredient seemed to be whipped cream, not the espresso or the booze that give tiramisu its classic flavor and texture.
Mrs. G, who was still giddy over her seafood risotto, loved her chocolate lava cake. A small, flourless mound was rich, moist and loaded with chocolate flavor.
We had a great experience with our friendly and helpful server, Carrie. She greeted us with rolls and seasoned dipping oil, which the servers prepare at the wine table in the middle of the dining room. When I ordered a $8 glass of Chianti, she did a soft upsell and suggested I’d be happier with a different Chianti that goes for $12 a glass. It was a large pour and a good choice: Later in the week, I bought a bottle of the less expensive wine and found it pretty boring by comparison.
Pricing at Armando’s is in line with Portsmouth standards. Our tab came to $98 for two entrees, two desserts, an appetizer and a glass of wine.
We had a great, relaxing evening in a casual yet sophisticated environment. Whether you remember the Rosa or not, Armando’s is worth checking out.