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Casa Ristorante Italiano
Out of a possible five

Plenty of menu winners at Casa on Parnell

It was the first restaurant my wife and I dined at together in Fort Wayne.

When my editor discovered my wife was of Italian heritage, he suggested Casa Mare on Parnell Avenue across from Memorial Coliseum. We had a wonderful time and quickly discovered why the local chain was so popular.

But Casa Mare is no more. The restaurant is still there, but it is now called Casa Ristorante Italiano. According to Thomas Parisi, Casa’s director of operations, the name change was made a year ago to make it more obvious to visitors that the place is Italian and not Mexican.

Regardless of what it is called, this Casa has the most classic, upscale looks of the four-location chain. It is also the oldest location. The flagship Casa D’Angelo on Clinton Street moved to Parnell and was renamed in 1983. But its looks are not out of fashion. It is dimly lit with unique architectural twists separating rooms, and the mural of Venice along one wall provides a bit of old-school charm.

And when it came to old-school Italian, nothing represented it better than the Fettuccine alla Carbonara, a classic dish with sautéed imported prosciutto in an egg-bound cream sauce. When I asked if the usual peas were also in the dish, my server said no but told me I could ask for the off-the-menu special carbonara, which included peas and crushed red pepper. The peas were a great touch, adding a little sweetness to this heavy, indulgent dish.

The sauce was so rich I could barely eat a third of it, and, when I went to have leftovers the next day, I had to cut the butter-, cream- and egg-fused noodles with a knife to separate a portion.

Another nice find from the recently released seasonal features menu was the opposite. The Filletto Angelina featured a flash-fried fillet of sole topped with sautéed spinach, fresh mozzarella and grape tomatoes in a light pinot grigio sauce. With just a squeeze of lemon, this dish was wonderfully vibrant with the sweet, ripe tomatoes adding a burst of freshness.

Just as light and also from the seasonal list was the Zuppa Dinozze (Italian Wedding) soup with its clear broth, mini meatballs, fresh escarole and pastina pasta orbs. If the classic Casa salad is not your cup of tea, a cup of this soup would be a good alternative.

The Spinaci Saltati appetizer from the features menu was confusing. Sautéed spinach was mixed with black olives, garlic, gorgonzola cheese, white wine and pepper flakes. There were no toast points or other edible vessel for the dish, which made it more like a side. The briny olives gave it some life, but it did not have enough garlic.

The Calamari Fritti appetizer also fell flat. It had three big slices of garlic toast, which, ironically, were unnecessary, along with greens on the side. The lightly breaded squid was a touch overcooked and rubbery. I also didn’t like that the marinara dip was served cold.

The other entrées were also a bit underwhelming:

•The Vitello con Granchio – sautéed veal with crabmeat and cheese in lemon white wine sauce – had little flavor except for the hint of lemon in the sauce. The crab was OK but didn’t really complement the veal.

•The steak tips – grilled kabobs, one steak and one vegetable – were nicely cooked to provide a little charred flavor, but I was shocked I could not request a particular temperature on the meat. The tips were well done and would have been better medium or medium-rare. The wild mushroom risotto was terrible – clumpy, pasty and not what a true risotto should be at all.

•The Capellini con Funghi Fresca – mushrooms sautéed in garlic-butter sauce – was bland. My server didn’t help much by telling me “sliced and whole” when I inquired as to what kind of mushrooms it contained (i.e. portabella, shitake, etc.). I might have considered it OK for a vegetarian dish except that it wasn’t vegetarian. The sauce, my server told me, is made with chicken stock. That was not mentioned on the menu.

Dessert is usually never a disappointment at a Casa, and it wasn’t this time, either.

The Italian Almond Cake is a new favorite. This spin on a classic tiramisu features amaretto-soaked lady fingers layered with mascarpone cream and topped with crushed amarettini cookies (Italian macaroons) and toasted almonds.

The Limoncello Dolce cake from the features menu was also a winner. Three layers of vanilla cake soaked in the Italian lemon liquor were topped with mascarpone cream and a sprinkle of candied lemon peel. The cake and cream were light, the lemon flavor was intense, and I could not get enough of the bits of sour candy on top.

Did I get enough out of my recent visits to the old favorite? Sure.

But I am still not sold on the new name.

Restaurant: Casa Ristorante Italiano

Address: 4111 Parnell Ave.

Phone: 483-0202

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

Cuisine: Italian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Calamari ($7.99), wedding soup ($2.29 cup; $3.29 bowl), spinach appetizer ($3.99), carbonara ($11.99), fillet of sole ($14.99), steak tips ($13.99), veal with crab ($14.99), limoncello cake ($6.29), almond cake ($5.29)

Rating breakdown: Food: * (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (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. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.