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Casa Grille
***
Out of a possible five
$$

Close search of menu turns up new favorites

Going to a Casa restaurant is like visiting an old friend.

You know Casa well, and you know what you can count on from it, but since the relationship has lasted so long, you don’t expect to be surprised and kind of take it for granted.

During my recent visits to Casa Grille on Dupont Road, I strived to change things up so I would be surprised and excited, and – to my surprise – I was successful.

The seasonal menu came through with a salad that wowed me, and an appetizer from the sea was one of the best I have ever had. A pasta dish from the regular menu that had somehow escaped notice in the past is now a favorite, and a dessert that was not the scrumptious tiramisu or the rich and devilish six-layer chocolate cake I almost always choose found favor.

The Insalata Ravioli was a salmon-lover’s dream. A wonderful plate of fresh field greens, including frisee and arugula, was topped with six large smoked-salmon ravioli, diced red pepper, diced tomatoes, peas and crumbled grilled salmon. The crumbled salmon was moist and mild, and the taste really separated it from the smoky salmon in the ravioli so each could be savored independently. The red pepper added sweetness to the fish-heavy salad, but I would have liked more peas for the same reason. I also had to ask for more creamy Italian dressing because my salad was rather lightly dressed.

I was drawn to the Cozze di Vanna – Mediterranean-style mussels – in spite of not being a big fan of the shellfish. But when I saw they were “simmered with red plum tomatoes with garlic and white wine,” I just had to have them. And they were delicious. The mussels were among the mildest, more succulent I have ever had, and the scent of the garlic and acidity of the tomatoes really made the dish come alive. I was dipping my crusty house bread in the broth to savor every drop and ate every one of the mussels except for a pair that did not open and that should have been removed in the kitchen.

I discovered a couple of other new likes when it came to starters. Ordering breadsticks may seem silly given the quality of Casa’s bread, but the breadsticks were big and soft, and great when dipped in the crock of melted garlic butter that came with them. That butter also proved to be great for dunking the house bread. I also loved the white bean soup even though it wasn’t exactly bean-soup weather. The beans were al dente, and the loose brown broth derived plenty of flavor from chopped celery, onion and fresh basil.

My new favorite entrée was rich and heavy and had the perfect mix of flavors – salty, sweet and spicy – that made it hard to stop eating before I was too full. The Rigatoni Bianco was baked in a silky Parmesan cream sauce dotted with red pepper flakes. The sauce enveloped ground sweet Italian sausage, earthy mushrooms and spinach that was just slightly wilted so it still gave the dish a punch of fresh garden flavor. The red pepper raised the spice level just enough to tease the palate and complement the sausage.

The only item I tried from the Grille’s signature wood ovens, the Costolette di Maiale – rotisserie pork chops – suffered from poor execution and lacked vibrancy. These herb-rubbed chops were perfectly seasoned, but one was overcooked and dry. I also thought the brown, rather bland marsala gravy was a bit out of place given that the dish was served with wild mushroom risotto instead of potatoes, which would have benefited from it. A wine reduction would have been better. Also, the risotto was too thick and pasty.

For dessert, I chose the Torta di Mandorla – amaretto-soaked lady fingers layered with mascarpone cream and topped with crushed Italian amarettini cookies and toasted almonds. Much of the sweet, boozy flavor came from the amaretto, but the cookies and nuts created a wonderful crunchy topping that would be good on about anything. It was sort of a lighter, sweeter tiramisu, and was worth having again.

The seasonal dessert offering was not as favorable. The Ricotta Fruita Fresca sounded like the perfect light, summery treat with sweet dessert cream with lemon zest and cinnamon, kiwi, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and shaved dark chocolate served packed in a large wine glass. The first missing component was the sweetness in that cream. The ricotta also did not have any hint of lemon or cinnamon that I could detect. The fruit was fresh, but I had to really dig to the bottom of the glass to find most of the sweet macerated juices. After I smashed and mixed it all together, it was OK but still not nearly sweet enough.

There were some other disappointments: a bland farfalle vegetable appetizer that was loaded with black pepper, a broken cappuccino machine on a busy Saturday night and a long wait for my bill during both visits.

The atmosphere is pleasant with typical Italian decorations, a high ceiling and dancing flames from the big wood oven in the back facing the dining area, but that ceiling made every sound echo, and it was noisy.

Restaurant: Casa Grille

Address: 411 E. Dupont Road

Phone: 490-4745

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: Mediterranean mussels ($8.29), breadsticks ($4.49), bean soup ($1.99 cup; $2.99 bowl), Rigatoni Bianco ($8.99), rotisserie pork chops ($12.99), Insalata Ravioli ($8.79), Ricotta Fruita Fresca ($3.99), Torta di Mandorla ($4.79)

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

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

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. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the website, and you can hear Ryan from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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