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The Journal Gazette

  • Pasta con Verdura from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • A look inside of Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Panzanella Salad from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Lasagne Carne Amante from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Tuscan Mac & Cheese from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Nonna's Bread Pudding from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Garlic dough knots from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Rotisserie chicken from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Gluten-free chocolate cheesecake from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Calamari Fritti from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

  • Vitello con Granchio -- veal with crab -- from Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard.

Sunday, June 03, 2018 1:00 am

Italian staple's specials menu offers variety

RYAN DUVALL | The Journal Gazette

Casa Ristorante

***

Out of a possible five

$$

It's like a comfortable chair.

It's not the fanciest place, you aren't bragging much about it and it's kind of like a hand-me-down from your parents who took you there when you were young.

Casa Ristorante on West Jefferson Boulevard isn't blowing up Instagram and it's not going to be on anyone's list of cutting-edge eateries. But when it comes to solid Italian food and just as solid service, it is hard to find any place better than a Casa.

The best place to find hashtag-worthy dishes at Casa is on the ever-changing specials menu, and one on there that was not Italian in any way grabbed my attention.

The Tuscan Mac & Cheese sounded great with aged cheddar, asiago and smoked gouda, barbecued pork and fried onion straws.

But I was not able to try it on my first visit because the restaurant was out of it. I was miffed given I was there during peak dinner hours on a Saturday when the restaurant should expect the specials to be in high demand.

But I was able to muster an order at lunch when things were slow.

It lived up to its saliva-inducing description. It was creamy and cheesy, the pork was tender with just a hint of barbecue sweetness and the lightly crunchy straws on top may have been the best part.

The panzanella salad on that specials menu also drew me in because I rarely see it offered.

It, too, satisfied as the rustic garlic croûtons were the star. They were not overly crunchy and still had some bread-like texture. It also had a lot of tasty salami strips, very creamy fresh mozzarella chunks and grape tomatoes.

The Parmesan vinaigrette dressing on the romaine and basil was sweeter than I expected, but still tasty.

All in all, it was a good salad, but – no surprise here – it was not as good as the classic Casa salad, which is still the best appetizer option.

But the Calimari Fritti won me over and could be a go-to from now on.

It had toasted garlic bread pieces, sliced roma tomatoes and field greens on the side, along with marinara for dipping. I barely needed the sauce because the calamari was tossed in a mix of fresh garlic and parsley. I loved being able to concoct fantastic little calamari bruschetta bites with it all.

The dough knots were pretty good – nicely toasted and served over a pool of melted butter dotted with chopped garlic, but Casa's complimentary bread loaves are so good that I would pass on them next time. I would like to get a bowl of that butter and garlic to go with the free bread as I used my loaf to soak up every drop after the knots were gone.

Two menu staples I had not tried before had mixed results.

The Lasagne Carne Amante was flawless. This meaty wonder arrived bubbling hot in its own little crock and had Italian sausage, pepperoni, prosciutto and sliced meatballs layered in it, along with meat sauce and a spot-on blend of cheeses.

The Vitello con Granchio featured a breaded and sautéed piece of veal with crab meat and cheese on top in a lemon white wine sauce.

It flopped.

The veal was dry and the “delicate” sauce had congealed, forming a thin skin-like layer on top of it.

What this Casa is missing that the Casa Grille spots on DuPont and Stellhorn roads have is a big wood oven as its centerpiece. Not only does it keep it behind those other spots in terms of pleasing aesthetics, it affects the food, too.

My rotisserie chicken was not as juicy and flavorful as I had hoped and tasted a bit like it was reheated because, well, it was. The chicken is cooked over the wood at one of the other locations and then shipped to West Jefferson.

But what really made this chicken unappetizing was the sickeningly sweet red currant sauce poured over it. It was so sugary I barely touched the bird.

I was told by my server, who quickly offered to replace it after noticing I wasn't eating it, that the sauce is also used to top cheesecake. It might have worked on dessert, but it ruined my dinner.

My replacement for the chicken was possibly Casa's most consistent dish – the Pasta con Verdura.

The restaurant's most-popular dish, it features pasta shells and fresh mushrooms in a luxurious cream sauce with broccoli, tomatoes, spinach, more mushrooms, cauliflower, asparagus or a mix of vegetables.

The sauce was light in texture but still decadent, the mushrooms added a nice umami note and my spinach brightened it up. It was magnificent.

I did have some cheesecake at Casa, and it didn't have red currant sauce.

The chocolate cheesecake had a thin layer of fudgy chocolate on top of its chocolate cream cheese base and the crumbled graham crust was quite tasty. It was not only a stellar gluten-free choice, but a good choice, period.

In fact, the only flaw I found with dessert during my visits was with a server who never brought my espresso. It would have been perfect with Nonna's Bread Pudding, too.

This sort of deconstructed bread pudding had roasted pecans, raisins and a sweet, egg-enriched vanilla sauce on top of its sugary bread. The sauce had a nice sour note that tamed the sweetness of this comforting meal ender.

That pudding looked so pretty it could go on Instagram, but that is a rarity at Casa, which is embarrassingly bad at plating its food.

I paired my veal with risotto and they arrived on separate large plates by themselves. My rotisserie chicken also arrived on a barren plate with its pasta side on another. I was able to put my risotto on the plate with the veal and hand the empty plate back to my server in seconds. But that is apparently impossible for Casa staff to handle in the kitchen.

The macaroni and lasagna arrived in their own crocks, but those crocks were set on plates too small to hold them so they teetered awkwardly when I took a fork to them.

The chain clearly has the resources to find a way to plate its food better.

But even if they don't, I'll be heading back for sure. It will be as soon as I am craving Pasta con Verdura, or maybe some calamari. Or when I just need a Casa salad or when I am in the mood for ...

Restaurant: Casa Ristorante

Address: 7545 W. Jefferson Blvd.

Phone: 436-2272

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Italian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Calamari ($10.99), knots ($5.29), panzanella salad ($9.29 small; $11.29 large), mac & cheese ($9.99 lunch; $13.99 dinner), veal ($16.99), pasta con verdura ($11.79), rotisserie chicken ($13.29), lasagne ($10.59), bread pudding ($5.99), cheesecake ($7.29)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.