Portino’s – Valley Center, CA

If you haven’t yet traveled up to Valley Center in San Diego County, California, you haven’t been missing much. Valley Center is quite distant in the back hills behind Escondido. In fact, it really is not a valley at all. It seems to sit atop a plateau, or mesa (that would be Spanish), and situated amongst surrounding valleys enroot to other hills and mountainous areas in San Diego County. So yes, to get there, you need to go up. Valley Center is somewhat unique in that its population is quite small despite its large area. This is mostly due to its 2.5 acre parcel minimum for single dwelling property ownership. It has allowed many of the residents to have small farms and ranches in a somewhat remote, yet accessible area out of the city limits.

There are not many restaurants and stores in Valley Center. I have written about one on a lake. I wasn’t necessarily impressed with their food. There are a few more eateries I will check out in the future, and I think we’ll see several more sprout up, as the community seems to be obtaining permitting to allow for more residents and businesses.

portino's 2One such establishment has been there for several years. In fact, it was operated under another restaurant name. I think it used to be called “Pepperoni’s”. I remember ordering a pizza from them back several years ago. I said “a” pizza. We’ll just leave it at that. Perhaps back then their business model was a mockery of delivery places like Dominos and Pizza Hut, since it is in the center of the valley where these delivery places did not touch. I don’t remember anything special about them from back then.

Since then, the name has been changed and the look of the restaurant has taken another face. We have passed there almost daily and never stopped in to really try a pizza. I don’t know why, maybe because there remained a vision of a desperate pizza place out in the middle of nowhere serving shitty food. I think we bought a pizza or two, but it was really nothing to stop and say “WOW”! Well one day, out of perhaps the same desperation, I needed a quick resolution to the Friday night dinner pizza. It happened to be convenient, so I stopped in and read the menu.

While reading the menu, I noticed Portino’s had won a pizza competition (I can only imagine) in 2009. I guess by looking at the award, it may actually be quite a significant award for “Western Region, Best Traditional Pizza” given by the International Pizza Expo. On Portino’s menu exists the winning “Sausage and Roasted Garlic pie. We bought one once and brought it home. Once home, we really didn’t pay too much attention to the quality and flavors involved with this pizza, (it’s about a 15 minute drive), and maybe we were in a hurry to shove food in the kids’ face to shut them up. Then one day, again out of desperation, we stopped in for a sit down. I again ordered the same pizza. I also ordered my favorite beer (any place that serves this is a winner in my book), Stone IPA on tap. We also ordered the Mac ‘n’ Cheese.

Well, now we have just entered a whole new world of understanding with Portino’s. While the Mac ‘n’ Cheese was good, it is baked and served in its own oven-baking dish and had formed a nice crust on the melted cheese along the top. What really kicked it up to a much higher level, was the addition of the parmesan shaken cheese that was resident of the table accoutrements. And it did not take very much of a shake at that. Perhaps it was just the extra touch of saltiness the cheese provided. I began to take a different look at Portino’s. The Mac ‘n’ Cheese was a dinner, so I guess it came with a house salad. Whatever, just bring your “house salad”. The house salad was a generous portion of lettuce, onions, cucumbers, fresh croutons and fresh tomatoes. Did I say tomatoes? These were locally grown and really delicious tomatoes. We quickly began to tear the salad apart to analyze the remaining components to see if anything else was farm fresh. Although we couldn’t readily tell, those delicious tomatoes made us think the remainder of the salad must have also been from just down the road as well.portino's 1

While the salad and Mac ‘n’ Cheese were certainly hitting us in the taste buds, there was time to reflect on the very casual atmosphere and back-country Italian décor . . . and the annoying hum from the ventilation system that kept a metronomic beat as we chewed to each monotonous swell of the fan noise. That of an orchestra conductors baton . . . keeping . . . on . . . the . . . beat . . . with . . . every . . . bite . . . hum . . . hum . . . hum . . . Thank god the pizza just showed up. The wife and I wanted to hurt each other. The sound was so monotonous and audibly apparent.

Let’s talk a moment about their “Award Winning” Sausage and Roasted Garlic pizza. I don’t know about you, but I eat a lot of different pizza’s, and for a lot of different reasons. I eat Little Ceasar’s (yeah, by absolute protest), because my kids wanted it, it was five bucks and it shuts them up. I eat Domino’s, Pizza Hut or Papa John’s, because someone at work ordered it, or again I bought one just to shut the kids up. We order various pizzas from various locations and eateries because we have different likes about the pizzas’ attributes. Like one such pizza from Round Table. Round Table must be the single most expensive pizza on the planet. Unfortunately, one of their most expensive pizzas (X-Large, 16” = $26.99), the Gourmet Veggie is what we like. It’s one of those pizza flavor combinations that, if we’re eating at, or ordering from Round Table, that’s the one we order.

Another such pizza has now entered the realm of truly fantastic pizzas. The Portino’s “Award Winning” Sausage and Roasted Garlic pizza is quite remarkable. Portino’s makes their own sausage on site and add to that pizza, an absolutely terrific homemade red sauce (I’m Italian, and I don’t just throw that around), fresh roasted garlic, mozzarella and they use a beer pizza dough trade marked by another vender. I looked them up on the internet, and I’m sure they’re legit, but they appeared to be mid-Western wack-jobs that are selling some kind of “snake oil” pizza dough remedy. Anyway, this pizza is some kind of delicious retreat from the ordinary, belt-drive pizza system, that most people can’t tell apart from Digiorno or delivery. Although I hadn’t witnessed it, I believe it’s cooked on a stone type of oven that adds as much flavor as it does character to the pizzas they make.

This trip to dine at Portino’s has shed new light on the potential and possibilities Portinos’ menu may have hiding, and the new idea that there may be good food “back in ‘dem hills”. The wife and I vowed to travel back and explore more of Portinos’ menu, with hopes the enjoyment continues. They had several other offerings from Italian heritage items, to American classics. Anything with that red marinara sauce is going to get tried, to see if they can rock other classic Italian classics.

Start with the tomatoes
Start with the tomatoes

I think I’ll give Portino’s a bunch of my fresh tomatoes. YUM!



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