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.

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