There’s a quote from the movie “Harvey” that I think about a lot.
Jimmy Stewart’s character Elwood explains that his mother told him that in this world you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.
“Well, for years I was smart,” Elwood says, “I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
I like it so much because as the kids say, I feel seen. I was smart as a young man. Smart and inwardly cynical with a sharp-edged wit that I thought made me clever.
Or at least that was the version of myself I wanted to see, the textbook Gen Xer, in the corner of the room making snide remarks to himself.
There’s some truth to that version of me, but as I’ve grown older I don’t find that guy nearly as impressive as I used to.
I’m not smart anymore. Sometimes I wonder if I ever was. But I still tell myself I was. In fact, I tell myself that three kids and a job that requires me to process and expel massive downloads of information every day have left my brain tattered and world-worn. I tell myself I am not the man I used to be.
But maybe it’s just that I’m a more self-aware man than I used to be.
I say all that to say this: There was a time in my life I would not have been openly charmed by a faux-Italian-themed hotel at the end of the green canal system in the lesser of Orlando’s two major theme parks.
There was a time I would have looked at the Italian-themed piazza of the Loew’s Portofino Bay Hotel and seen the cracks, the fissures. I would have seen the price of the rooms and done the math. You could have actually gone to Italy for what you’re paying to pretend to be there.
I would have obsessed over the fact that Universal Orlando Resort made the fictional World of Harry Potter seem incredibly real.
Yet somehow they allowed Portofino Bay to feel like something on a movie backlot. I would have focused – not on the charms – but the shortcomings.
And it’s not that I didn’t see the shortcomings – obviously, I’m still writing about them.
It’s just that I now see past them to the lovely faux Italian village under the bright blue Orlando sky. I don’t allow the shortcomings to block out the larger successes.
Now, I can sit in the metal chairs at the metal tables. I can sip wine and watch the empty “bay” lap at the edges of the stone piazza courtyard – also blissfully empty. And I can allow myself to be transported, not to Italy, but to a version of a vacation where sitting and pleasantly observing required absolutely no comment from me.
A place where I was free to enjoy the best version of me … a place that is charming and pleasant.
Welcome to Mama’s Della’s Ristorante
Located in the utterly charming – I keep coming back to that word – piazza of Loew’s Portofino Bay Hotel is Mama Della’s Ristorante.
If you’re not staying at the hotel, the best way to get there is by boat from Universal Citywalk.
It’s a clever little psychological trick. The boat ride is like Willy Wonka’s trip on the chocolate river without all the psychedelic freaking out. Although, as an aside, that should absolutely be a theme park ride somewhere.
You get on a boat in soothing waters. Then, you sail away from the hustle and bustle and crowded adrenaline neon madness of city walk.
By the time you reach Portofino Bay, the last stop on the ride, you’re entirely transported. However, you’ve only gone a few hundred yards.
So you dock in this slightly too bright, faded watercolor version of Italy. It was again – in my experience – almost completely empty. It’s like popping into a painting, immersing yourself in this serene vision of vacation bliss.
And then you get to Mama’s.
Mama Della’s is a stylized version of real life. Certainly, it may not work for a cynic.
Sitting here reflecting on it, another movie analogy comes to mind. Specifically, like Cypher in “The Matrix” I don’t need it to be real to have a great time.
I just need it to be good. Is Mama’s good? Yeah. Pretty much in every way we needed it to be, it was.
We entered a little early because we had guessed on the wait for the boat ride. And the restaurant was mostly empty. In fact, just a few other families were there. And we perused the menu trying to adjust the frigid blast of air conditioning.
What does Mama’s serve?
Mama’s specializes in Italian food. Specifically, they offer dishes from Tuscany, Naples and Piemonte billed as authentic. Are they actually authentic? I don’t know. I’ve never been to Tuscany or Naples and until I typed those letters in that order, I’d never heard of Piemonte.
I was once a younger, smarter man, who believed that his taste in all things from music to movies to cuisine was impeccable. And I would have told you that I’ve been to places like London, New York and Paris.
Certainly, I’d been to some pretty nice Italian restaurants and while not an expert, I could give a fairly qualified opinion on the relative quality of Italian food.
Today? I’m a man who better knows his limitations. Is Mama’s great Italian food? I think it is. However, I haven’t had a lot of Italian meals over the years that I didn’t like. It’s possible that I’m an easy date on that count.
What I can tell you is how Mama Della’s Ristorante experience made me feel. I’m a fan. I found the food delicious.
In addition to the meal, a trio travels from table to table – serenading diners. Because we had kids at the table and left the selection up to the trio, we got a magnificent version of “Bella Notte” from “Lady and the Tramp”.
The kids were enthralled. My wife – who has a Julia Roberts-esque smile when she doesn’t hide it – beamed.
I don’t like to use the same word over and over again, but I keep coming back to charmed. The theming, the presentation, the music, the food, I found everything absolutely charming.
I don’t know that I’ve ever had a restaurant experience that was quite so pleasant. It’s certainly my favorite theme park dining experience.
What is on Mama Della’s menu?
If you’ve eaten at many Italian restaurants, you’re not going to be too surprised by what Mama’s offers.
My normally picky 7-year-old, who has been on a calamari kick for the last six months, loved the Calamari Fritti with crispy capers and marina and still managed to demolish an order of spaghetti and meatballs.
Other starts include Pasta E Fagioli – white bean soup, ditalini pasta, pancetta base and spinach. They also offer Gamberi Scampi – jumbo shrimp, lemon butter and garlic crostini.
There’s also Classico Caprese – fresh mozzarella log, vine-ripened tomato, olive oil, balsamic glaze and fresh basil.
For my meal, I went with the Rigatoni Bolognese – homemade beef and pork bolognese, topped with melted burrata cheese. And it was quite good.
But when the table next to us ordered, I regretted passing on the Homemade Lasagna – Mama’s famous recipe with braised beef, Italian pork sausage, bechamel and marinara sauces. The Bistecca – filet mignon, truffle mashed potato, roasted wild mushroom, broccolini, braised cipollini onion, baby carrots, black pepper candied bacon – also looked quite good.
Next time I go, I’m getting the Bistecca.
Leslie went with the Salmon and Shrimp – spinach, mushroom and pappardelle pasta in white wine cream sauce. My daughter Sofia had the self-explanatory Pollo Alla Parmigiano.
Dessert options include a selection of gelato and sorbetto. However, the Dark Chocolate Flourless Pistachio Torte – white chocolate pistachio chantilly, praline crunch and raspberry compote – is a clear winner.
You can view the dinner menu online here.
Does Mama Della’s take reservations?
Yes, of course. And I recommend making them in advance.
As I said, we gave ourselves plenty of time because the boat schedule isn’t quite as reliable as the bus schedule. In addition, you never know how many people are going to be heading either back to their hotel or to one of the hotels to eat.
So we got there quite a bit early, just as the restaurant was opening. So we had no wait at all. However, I have been reliably told that reservations are very much recommended.
The return trip
As much as the ride to Portofino Bay worked, the ride back was a different deal. We weren’t quite ready to leave the Portofino vibe behind. We sat in the piazza and priced staying there for our next vacation.
My daughter Ainsley explored the area. She kept calling it Luca’s village, after the new Pixar movie involving Italian shape-shifting sea monsters.
A couple of times during the rest of the trip, she asked when we were going back to Luca’s village.
Sure, the parks have the Simpsons and Seuss and Harry Potter, but there was something in Portofino Bay that was fairly rare in our weeklong trip to Universal. The 7-year-old and the 47-year-old both wanted more of it … and also the calamari.
Have you eaten at Mama Della’s? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.