The family responsible for Casa Italiana doesn’t live above the restaurant, but it’s the kind of place that feels like it should.
In Westbury Shopping Center, Casa Italiana makes it known right up front that it’s devoted to the vecchio and nuovo — the old and the new. With large white pendant lights, exposed ductwork and a red-lit back bar, the space itself clearly reads as new, although touches such as a wall of black and white family photographs, wine holders mounted on the wall and overwrought Italian music contribute to a classic Italian restaurant vibe.
That balance between classic and updated carries through on the menu. Crispy calamari ($9) is a standard issue appetizer, but here the addition of battered, fried fennel and artichokes give it a fresh feel, the fennel so satisfyingly flavorful that it needs no garlic aioli or pomodoro sauce adornment.
A vegetarian couldn’t be any more impressed than our table of omnivores when an appetizer of earthy roasted mushrooms ($9) arrives surrounded by a supporting cast that includes of-the-moment grilled asparagus and fresh mozzarella over baby arugula with a smear of snappy sundried tomato pesto to tie everything together.
A portion of the menu is given to grilled pizzas, which range from a classic margherita ($9) to a meat lover’s dream ($12) laden with Italian sausage, prosciutto, pepperoni and pancetta — but we found pie nirvana with a basil pesto ($10) pizza. Crispy pancetta, baby arugula, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella make an instant classic.
Italian ingredients translate well to sandwiches, and never more so than in the case of chicken rustico ($9) made thick with roasted red peppers, tomato, spinach and mozzarella, then made savory with sundried tomato pesto and a sweet balsamic reduction. More simply dressed with olive oil and balsamic, the prosciutto classico ($10) is the ultimate Italian grilled ham and cheese gussied up with tomatoes and arugula.
Second cousin to bread pudding, traditional panzanella is made with stale, dried bread that’s given new life with a dressing of juice from fresh tomatoes, vinegar and lots of olive oil. Generations of Italian cooks have made it to use up old bread and tomatoes that have seen better days. Casa Italiana re-imagines panzanella ($8) as a full salad with fresh greens, those crucial tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and mozzarella dressed in a sunny lemon vinaigrette, but the undisputed stars are the warm crispy fried polenta cubes that stand in for stale bread. More, please.
That same lemon vinaigrette works its magic on the golden-brown breaded chicken cutlet of chicken Milanese ($15), with arugula and tomato riding shotgun.
Pasta offerings are numerous and portioned as if an Italian grandmother is finally getting the chance to serve her starving family. Two of us couldn’t finish a bowl of orecchiette pasta ($14) laden with sausage and garlic broccolini and bathed in white wine and Parmesan cheese, but then we probably shouldn’t have begun the meal with fried calamari. Despite an absence of meat, cheese tortellini ($15) are every bit as rich, asparagus and arugula providing color in a sea of sundried tomato pesto cream sauce that manages to close arteries and put a smile on our faces simultaneously.
As with many new restaurants, there are some easily correctable service hiccups at Casa Italiana. Multiple tables covered in dirty dishes sit undisturbed for most of one lunch, despite that we were one of only three occupied tables. Timing could use some adjustment when entrees show up when we’re only halfway into appetizers.
But the young staff is cheerful and voluble about how fabulous they think the food coming out of the kitchen is, providing the sense that even though they may not be part of the family proper, they’re honorary members.
In the dining room sits a table with an enormous hollowed-out round of Parmesan covered with a towel — and because it clearly has a purpose, we inquire of our server. With great enthusiasm, she explains it’s ground zero for Casa Italiana’s signature dish, spaghetti al formaggio ($16).
As she describes it, flaming brandy goes into the cheese bowl to melt the cheese before the flames burn out. A server arrives from the kitchen with impeccable timing to pour spaghetti and tomato sauce into the bowl to absorb the melted cheese.
“You have to come back for it,” she insists. “It’s life-changing.” Spoken like a true member of the family. S
Mondays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
8801 Three Chopt Road