Monday, April 19, 2010

Italy by Way of Belmont? Il Casale Comes Close

You’d have to practically live on Italy’s Amalfi Coast (and who wouldn’t want to?) not to recognize Dante de Magistris’s name amongst Boston’s most revered and exciting chefs. His flagship restaurant, Dante, offers up more upscale, sexy Italian fare in Cambridge’s Royal Sonesta Hotel, and opened to rave reviews a few years back. Fortunately for us suburbanites, de Magistris, along with father, Leon and brothers Damian and Filippo, have scaled things back (bringing un-sexy back?) by recently opening up an establishment in his hometown of Belmont, which serves up more traditional, family-style Italian inspired fare conjured up from his nonna’s (grandmother) recipe book. This isn’t Clio, folks: whereas chef Ken Oringer’s gastronomical dishes are expensively ambitious, de Magistris’s cuisine, like the restaurant’s name (a house in the Italian countryside) achieves affordable simplicity.

If it’s ambience you’re after, il Casale won’t disappoint (unless, of course, you’re seeking out that remote house in the Italian countryside). The restaurant, situated in quaint Belmont center, resides in a converted firehouse. Brick walls, exposed beams, high ceilings, chandeliers, and muted lighting make for a romantic, trendy décor. Dark curtains separate the large bar from the dining room and open kitchen. Lively, good-looking crowds are in abundance, cheerily sipping on cocktails and consuming their meals. Lest we forget we’re in Belmont, not New York City.

At il Casale, family-style dining is the order of the day. Aptly named after Italian race cars, though far more affordable, the Fiat ($35) includes four courses while the Ferrari ($60) offers five courses plus sfizi (small bites).

Speaking of reasonably-priced, the sfizi are a steal at $5 apiece. While every local food critic under t sun raved about the maiale (pork meatballs), I was slightly disappointed by their blandness. They were neither filled with nearly enough mozzarella nor succulent, despite de Magistris’s innovate technique of preparing the meatballs in a pig’s head reduction sauce. Far more intriguing, and simple for that matter, was the traditional carne version, cooked in pure tomato sugo (sauce) and sprinkled with cheese. Old standbys arancini (porcini risotto rice balls with scamorza and tomato sauce) and pomodoro (tomato bruschetta with garlic and Silician oregano) were once again simply prepared yet simply divine. Amongst the entire sfizi offerings, however, the burrata – a buttery mozzarella from Apulia served with Monini olive oil and candied pistachios, was pure bliss: a perfectly balanced dish blending the cheese’s tartness with milky, nutty sweetness.

Entrees offer equal value and quality, none whose price point exceeds $26 (pastas top out at $21). Dante’s nonna, I’m sure, slaved over her pasta dishes, so why not sample one for ourselves? Illustrative of de Magistris’s attentiveness to using fresh, seasonal ingredients, gnocchi ($21) are light, pillowy dumplings served ‘primavera’ style, including a pink porcini sauce and a spring vegetable ragout that includes favas, peas, and asparagus. The secondi dishes are also strong, including the pizzaiola, a slow-braised skirt steak layered with tomato-oregano sugo, where the meat is both perfectly cooked and melt-in-your-mouth good.

A half dozen moderately-priced red and white wines ($9-14/glass) adorn the menu, as do a dozen interesting, adeptly prepared cocktails which range from $8-12. A refreshing, Bellini-like Pear cider ($10) blends cider, pear cognac, and prosecco to perfection.

Be sure to save room for dessert. A traditional tiramisu is thankfully light and packs a healthy dose of gran marnier. The frittelle, however, is worth shouting back to Italy about. Venetian style fried dough, served as beignet-style pieces, are accompanied by a warm chocolate fonduta dipping sauce. The plating of this dish might not be overly inspiring, but as with the lionshare of dishes at il Casale, it’s the flavors that take center stage.

Service is exceptional. Our server never once blinks when questioned about the menu, and seemed to have an innate ability to pare dishes with wines based on our table’s preferences and tastes. He demonstrated a refined enthusiasm over the kitchen’s cuisine, which in turn elevated the quality of our dining experience.

I’ll happily reserve a spot at the deMagistris family table and consume their nonna’s delectable cuisine. After all, il Casale, tucked just far enough away from the bright lights of that big city, Boston, proves that you can, after all, go home for a great meal.

El Oriental de Cuba Brings Little (Bites of) Havana into Jamaica Plain

Poor foreign relations may have always prevented Fidel Castro from frequenting the United States, but perhaps the intoxicating aromas and flavors emanating from a wonderful, little restaurant situated in Jamaica Plain just might entice him here. El Oriental de Cuba, founded in 1994, offers up some of the finest authentic Cuban cuisine north of Miami.

Don’t fret about the restaurant’s interior. The front-to-back setting doesn’t allow for seating parties of more than six, and not a high chair in the establishment had functional seat fasteners for children. The service, though certainly friendly, is a tad too leisurely (more like Caribbean-team), as waters were poured and orders taken nearly fifteen minutes after seating.

But let’s face it: it’s not the ambience you’re after here, but rather, the delectable cuisine. For starters, you’ll find a variety of savory soups and stews, including a marvelously hearty take on traditional seafood stew with rice ($8.95). The beef patty ($2.50), served empanada style, was a revelation: a flaky exterior packed with tender minced meat whose flavor is enhanced by a variety of secret spices. Fried sweet plantains ($1.95) were equally good, with a crème-brulee-like exterior and a heavenly gooey center. While others in my party raved about the octopus salad, I found the fish’s texture too tough, with zero rubberiness and give, and the abundance of vegetables surprisingly added little flavor to the dish.

Entrees fared equally well. While whole red snapper in spicy sauce ($16.95) proved to be a dull disappointment, the shrimp in garlic sauce with mofongo ($16.95) was playfully presented and perfectly prepared. Upon initial glance, El Oriental de Cuba’s Cuban sandwich may sound less appealing than more exciting options that include drunken goat and rabo (braised oxtail). But listen closely to the locals, and they’ll swear by this sandwich, and for good reason. It is served on an airy, baguette-like bread, layered with succulent strips of pork, and lathered with a special sauce, along with traditional ingredients of mustard and pickles. I dare any restaurant’s imitations to match the simplistic, yet optimal flavor of El Oriental’s standout version. And don’t forget to wash all of your meal down with one of the restaurant’s revered tropical shakes ($3.00). They are blended with milk or water, and given the wonderful potency and richness of the fruits, the former ingredient need not be required. Guanabana (semi-tart and semi-sweet) and horchata (rice and banana creating a mild chocolate flavor) are unique and exceptionally good.

Prior to entering this establishment, I discovered that El Oriental de Cuba’s location was firebombed a few years ago, only to re-open at the local residents’ insistence. Not only does that demonstrate the public’s acute sense of what qualifies for fine food, but also the owner’s sense of resiliency amidst hardship. I applaud this little restaurant-that-could as it continues to feed the masses. Count me amongst them.