Café Porta Alba's new iteration has a different ambiance from its snug, cave-like former location on Butler Street. Now situated in a corner spot on Hilldale's restaurant row, it has floor-to-ceiling windows and feels less intimate than the old space. But it's still warm and inviting. Apart from a flat-screen TV showing old Italian movies, there's not much to distract your eye from the pièce de résistance: the enormous, red-tiled pizza oven. This oven is the reason you are here: The $12,000 beauty was made in Italy and will cook your pizza perfectly in only 90 seconds at 900 degrees.
And, oh, that pizza! Neapolitan pizza, with its thinner crust and restrained amounts of fresh toppings, tends to be an "of the moment" food. It's breathtakingly good right out of the oven, not as newsworthy when reheated. Café Porta Alba's version is slightly more doughy than others, which makes it reheat better.
My favorite appetizer is the prosciutto and mozzarella, which can be upgraded to buffalo milk mozzarella for a few dollars more. That plate gives you four shivering pieces of pure white mozzarella and four slices of melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto. It's seductively simple and perfect for sharing.
If you prefer to start the meal more lightly, all the salads are portioned generously (enough for two to share). I like the simple Emiliana, just greens with balsamic vinegar and oil and a few shavings of excellent parmigiano. The bresaola salad is identical except for the addition of thinly sliced dried cured beef. I'm not usually one for cured meat on my salad, but the bresaola was delicately flavored, not overpowering, and added some interest. Other appetizers include cheese and antipasto plates as well as artichokes and mussels.
Café Porta Alba's pizzas are sized in 12-inch rounds, so that one pizza feeds one person, but sharing several is more fun, if you have the option. The Allegra, a white pizza (no tomato sauce, that is), is my favorite. It's topped with mushrooms and little dabs of mascarpone cheese, but the excitement lies in the truffle oil, which holds the different flavor notes together like a driving bass line. The Salsiccia is also good - a simple tomato-sauce pizza with mozzarella, mushrooms and sausage - as is the classic Margherita, with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.
If you're not in a pizza mood, Café Porta Alba also has pastas, ranging from simple spaghetti carbonara to gnocchi and seafood linguine. There are also panini, which come with a side of salad. These panini aren't huge Americanized beasts. They come in two thin pocket-breads, placing the emphasis on the fillings. The Alba panino holds an appealing mixture of parmacotto (thinly sliced Italian ham), asiago cheese and radicchio. The unctuousness of the ham and cheese was cut by the pleasantly bitter radicchio, making it possible to eat this hearty sandwich without feeling overfull afterward.
Café Porta Alba holds its own in desserts, as promised by the gigantic jar of Nutella, the hazelnut chocolate spread, sitting on the counter. The pizza alla Nutella, a round of dough sliced and stuffed with Nutella, can't much be argued with. I would have liked more Nutella to balance the amount of dough, but the chewy, warm pizza is still decadent and comforting. The tiramisu has not changed in the move to the new location, thankfully, remaining just as light and creamy as ever.
The only disappointment I experienced while eating at Café Porta Alba was in the service. If you arrive when the restaurant is nearly empty, service is attentive. However, the place can fill up fast, and when that happens, it might be 15 minutes or more before you see your server again, regardless of how long it's been since you touched a fork. That said, the excellent quality and consistency of the food are reason enough to give the restaurant more than one visit. In my experience, it was difficult to avoid a nearly perfect meal at Café Porta Alba.