Portobello’s: An Italian take on Southern hospitality

Mystery Diner • Mar 23, 2018 at 12:14 PM

One of the nicest phrases I’ve learned in becoming a Southerner is the one that goes “Y’all come back now, y’hear?” I’ve heard it uttered in response to all sorts of occasions; weddings, pool parties, golf matches (this last instance while money, usually mine, is changing hands) and dinners with friends. It is especially nice when spoken by the staff or management of a local eatery who can be counted upon to provide an excellent repast in pleasant surroundings.

You wouldn’t think that a restaurant the serves Italian and Mediterranean cuisine would be the place where you would hear words like “y’all” and “y’hear” very much, but such place is tucked into a storefront in the Kroger Shopping Center over on West State of Franklin Road in Johnson City. Portobello’s Italian Bistro has been a favorite of my dining partner and the rest of the dine-around bunch for some time now. Word has apparently gotten around, it seems. Even with five other restaurants located just steps away, Portobello’s always has a good crowd of happy patrons on hand to enjoy what they are cooking.

With lots of parking close by outside, the inside of Portobello’s emphasizes comfort and convenience. The décor has light and dark wood tones with minimal wall decoration. There are four flat-screen TVs in operation, two of which usually connected to the world of sports, the others showing food images from the restaurant’s menu. The background music is from the Sinatra songbook and kept at minimum volume. There is seating for a hundred or so patrons in sturdy and serviceable tables and chairs. Restrooms are located in the rear of the house and kept spotlessly clean. Portobello’s wait staff is young, knowledgeable and friendly. Though their lineup may change from time to time, their qualifications do not.

Chicken Caesar Wrap

Just last week, my dining partner and I invited our friends the Dieter and the Carnivore to supper at Portobello’s. With the weather going through another one of its close-of-winter tantrums, we arrived in a snow squall composed of roughly equal amounts of cold, snow, wind and sleet. After removal of coats, scarves and gloves our server, Laithen, showed us to our table. As I sat there reading my menu and listening to my friends discussing a potential table-wide smorgasbord, my attention kept wandering back to Portobello’s Caesar salad topped with grilled chicken ($8.99). I wanted something light, but not a whole platter of it. Fortunately, over on page six there was the Chicken Caesar Wrap ($7.99) that had all of the same ingredients of that salad platter, but in smaller quantity. Letting the others know what I was ordering, I chose the wrap. Laithen had my wrap in front of me within five minutes, and was kind enough to bring along a parmesan shaker without my having to ask for one. Though it comes half-wrapped in foil, the chicken Caesar wrap can be a real handful and is best eaten with knife and fork. Not only does this keep the wrap’s contents on your fork rather than in your lap, but you get to savor every delicious bite of it. The soft and fluffy freshly-baked pita bread is packed full of marinated white meat chicken grilled to a turn and then mixed with Romaine lettuce, fresh-grated parmesan cheese and Portobello’s excellent Caesar salad dressing. Not only did I enjoy every bite of it, the portion was large enough that I had some to share with my (very appreciative) friends.

Grilled Vegetable Salad with Chicken

While I was getting my tummy ready for my neo-Roman repast, my tablemates were settling on the components of the table-wide smorgasbord. Leading the way was my dining partner’s and the Dieter’s choice, one of Portobello’s grilled vegetable salads topped with grilled chicken ($8.99). It is one of my dining partner’s Portobello favorites and is proof positive that eating your vegetables isn’t the chore it once was (please note that this dish can be had with grilled steak for the same price, or grilled shrimp for a dollar more.) The salad is simplicity itself in the making. To a bed of torn romaine lettuce leaves, sliced red onions and green pepper spears is added grilled onions, peppers, mushrooms and freshly shredded parmesan cheese, then topped with grilled chicken. While they were mulling it over, Laithen suggested that my friends dress the salad with the house’s Greek salad dressing mix, and to get some feta cheese crumbles as a side order, just in case it was needed. The Dieter and my dining partner took Laithen’s advice and agree that Portobello’s homemade Greek dressing with extra feta is the best way to dress this (or any) salad.

Meat Lover’s Pizza

Since my dining partner and the Dieter had been so involved in deciding how they would be eating their vegetables, it fell to my friend the Carnivore to choose the main dish of our table’s smorgasbord. This proved to be a 16-inch (“XLG” in Portobello’s terminology) “Meat Lover’s” specialty pizza ($20.99). Just so you know, Portobello’s makes all their pizza dough in-house on a daily basis, hand-tossing and forming as needed. The dough is then sauced with Portobello’s proprietary pizza marinara. A light dusting of grated parmesan cheese is next. Topping this size Meat Lover’s pizza has to clean out the Portobello meat locker, there was such a quantity of all kinds of prepared meats on one pizza here. Slices of cured pepperoni fought for space with spicy Italian sausage slices, hamburger and cooked ham jostled for position while smoked, crumbled bacon strips bestrode them all. Another nod was given to the dairy food group with a nice scattering of shredded mozzarella cheese and then into the oven and baked … to perfection. Ordering a Portobello’s 16-inch Meat Lover’s pizza meant that, not only would the Carnivore have his usual “pound of flesh” for supper, the rest of us would have some as well. Through it all, Laithen was there, quietly refilling drinks, replacing dropped cutlery, and generally taking good care of the four of us. As for what remained of the pizza, there was enough left over for the Carnivore to have as his lunch the next day.

The bottom line

Portobello’s Italian Bistro is a fun place for anyone to bring along friends or just themselves and enjoy a great meal in friendly and comfortable surroundings. In addition to their dinner hours, they have a lunch menu (smaller portions and pricing) offered Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Though the four of us picked three menu items to make up our smorgasbord supper, Portobello’s also does pasta dishes, calzones (called “turnovers” here) and some really excellent appetizers that can be a meal in themselves. Their chicken wings can compete with any produced at a wings-only establishment; be sure to try the “Spicy Mango” version ($8.99). Portobello’s also does platters and burgers. There is a kid’s menu, but your offspring can order from the adult menu the same as you, right? Their daily specials (and some are really “special”) can be found on the chalk board by the restaurant’s entrance as well as their Facebook page.

No matter when or how you make your way to Portobello’s Italian Bistro, you can be sure their friendly and professional service will be available and enjoyable throughout your visit. I chalk it up to the staff’s Southern heritage and upbringing; why else would Laithen’s parting words to us as we left for home be:

“Y’all come back now, y’hear?”

Next week, the dine-around bunch and I visit a local roadhouse and enjoy a “Swayze-free” experience.

Portobello’s Italian Bistro

1805 West State of Franklin Road

Johnson City


Mon-Thu 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.

Fri-Sat 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

Sun 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

Available on Facebook, social media

and at


Credit card accepted.

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