Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Skilled Chef at Portalli's: Keith Holsey

Creating Magic in a Small Space

Part of my tour through Portalli’s was familiar; part of it was not.
But what characterized the walk-through and conversations with Chef Keith Holsey (left) and later, Evan Brown, was the notion of continuity and transformation.

With some businesses in Historic Ellicott City closing due to the stagnant economy, there is always initial sadness over the loss, followed by relief, then joy when the old space is re-established and opened with a new name, and a renewed life. In rehabilitation of a historic building, some changes are generally made to the interior, but historic features and spaces are retained in a best-case project, such as Portalli's. Jordan’s, which closed its doors a few months back, had the distinctive look and feel of interior designer, Leslie Lewart. Fortunately, much of that character remains.

Opening the front door. Entering Portalli's, then, being led by the receptionist through the bar I had known as Jordan’s and into Chef Holsey’s small kitchen was not without some emotion on my part. But the moment I was introduced to the Chef, it moved me into the present. We talked about what he liked to cook, and eat, but first, here is some important background about creation of the restaurant:

8085 Main Street 410.720.2330

Creating Portalli's in Historic Ellicott City. Lee Biars--brother of Alan, one of the team of creative entrepreneurs, and currently serving as marketing and publicity manager--had given me some important background after I asked him about how Portolli’s came to be and the Italian theme, and how the theme would be played out in both the food and wine selections.

This is what Lee Biars told me:

Portalli's was started by Evan Brown, my brother Alan, Chef Keith Holsey and me. We already owned The Diamondback Tavern (where Tiber River Tavern used to be) and once the Jordan's space became available we jumped on it. We had already planned an upscale Italian concept before anything became available, so we got in here as quickly as we could and went to work.

The name 'Portalli's' comes from Evan's maternal side, and Chef Keith Holsey is also of part Italian descent. Chef Holsey had already worked with Evan as Chef at Greystone Grill, and was a sous chef at Jordan's before that, so it made sense to designate him our Chef at Portolli's.

For the transformation of the restaurant interior, we really didn't have to do much. The building is absolutely beautiful so all we really had to do was paint the walls a lighter shade to brighten up the rooms, change a few light fixtures and put up some original Italian artwork.

About the restaurant concept: We did a ton of research as to what type of restaurant would be successful, in terms of what was 'right' for Historic Ellicott City. We looked at restaurants created by popular Italian chefs such as Mario Batali and Michael Chiarello, and found that the most popular trend was to create a menu in the spirit of traditional Italian dining where it is common to enjoy 3-4 manageable sized portions.

So we went with that concept and decided on a good mix of traditional Italian dishes (e.g. Lasagna, Spaghetti & Meatballs, Beef Carpaccio, Tiramisu) as well as Italian-inspired dishes created by Chef Holsey (e.g. Crab & Risotto Cake, Duck Confit Manicotti). For our wine list we decided on featuring wines made in Italy or American wines made by winemakers of Italian descent."

Back to the kitchen. Chef Keith Holsey told me that his favorite dishes to cook--and eat--were Shrimp Carbonara and Lamb Shanks. I concurred on both, but will order the lamb shanks when I have lunch or dinner at Portalli's in the near future. The menu is extensive, including antipasti, salads, pasta, an extensive listing of main dishes, a glorious wine list...and, of course, Italian desserts!

Next, I visited the upstairs dining room and spoke with gracious co-owner and host, Evan Brown. We stopped briefly in the hallway in front of this painting. When I asked him where it was painted, he replied, "Tuscany!" I told him I was going to travel there this Fall, so it gave me a preview feeling of being there.

Finally, into the upstairs dining room. This is a large space with many tables, and although the diners when I visited Portalli's were all downstairs, later on they will be seated in this lovely room with its soft colors and lighting.

Actually, anywhere you sit in this delightful Italian restaurant will be rewarding. You will do yourself a culinary favor to visit it soon.

Here is Portalli's web site, with the comprehensive menu, as well as prices. See for yourself!

Hours of Operation:
Mon-Sat 11am-10pm &

Sun 11am-8pm

Web page by Kay Weeks and Lee Biars
Photos by Kay Weeks; Shrimp Carbonara provided by Portalli's

For comprehensive information on Historic Ellicott City,
please visit


Anonymous said...

I will be dining there very soon, based on this review.

Kay Weeks said...

Looks great, Kay. Thank you so much. I'll be sure to include this in our next blast email.


Anonymous said...

I am pleased that someone moved into that space fairly quickly.

Anonymous said...

Your review of Portalli's was insightful, informative and also a little fun too. And you're right: the chef really is handsome; that in itself may bring in more clientele, don't you think?!

Anonymous said...

You should be a writer for a travel magazine. Portallis sounds wonderful. The atmosphere is just as important as the food. The handsome chef doesnt do much for me.....Great fun...more of these pls....also some food reports from Tuscanny...Harve

Anonymous said...

Lovely, thank you! you surely deserve a glass of wine maybe with lamb shank.


Anonymous said...

Very well done in words and photos.

Denee Barr