249 Main St. Northport, NY 631-262-7656
In the three years since she has owned Caffe Portofino, Lisa Harris has honed many skills -- managing employees, buying provisions, baking pastries. But the one she's found most valuable is listening to her customers. Soon after she bought the Northport coffee house from its second owner, she switched her coffee supplier to a local micro-roaster and began to hear customers saying things like "This is the best cappuccino I've ever had," and "This espresso reminds me of what I had in Italy." The raves made her proud, but they also served to make her question everything else on the menu. After all, she'd never heard any complaints about the old coffee.
"It's important to me that everything here be superb," she said. "It's not enough that it be acceptable."
In addition to upgrading the coffee, Harris, who had a catering business just after graduating from college, also started making almost all Portofino's baked goods from scratch. Her pastries look homey and taste good. Chocolate-chip cookies come in two varieties, chewy and crunchy, and her "magic bar" recipe comes from the back of a can of sweetened condensed milk. Pumpkin whoopie pies are her own creation. The whole-wheat scones and the "morning sunshine breakfast cookies" have become runaway hits which she also supplies to a handful of other retail outlets.
Caffe Portofino also serves cooked-to-order breakfast and lunch. On the third Sunday of every month, the homey little shop gets tablecloths, table service and a jazz band for a jazz-and-waffles brunch. There are also poetry nights and comedy nights. Mostly, though, there are regular customers reading the paper, kibitzing with the staff, eating a pastry, sipping a coffee. -- Erica Marcus
Photo: Lisa Harris, proprietor of Caffe Portofino in Northport, holds a basket of homemade scones and cookies on Oct. 21, 2010. (Newsday / Erica Marcus)