If only we could clone our favorite restaurants.
Il Casale opened in Belmont five years ago, offering stunningly simple, rustic Italian dishes inspired by the family recipes of chef Dante de Magistris. It was like eating food cooked by a very elegant nonna.
In May, a sequel arrived in Lexington. Il Casale Cucina Campana + Bar focuses on the food of Southern Italy, particularly the de Magistris clan’s ancestral stamping grounds of Campania. This restaurant ought to be even better than the first: On a recent evening, a glimpse behind a cobalt-patterned tile wall into the open kitchen reveals de Magistris and chef Anthony Susi, laughing and cooking together. Lexington’s got talent. Susi formerly ran the excellent Italian restaurant Sage.
But the food at Lexington’s Il Casale isn’t yet what it should be. Aiming for perfect simplicity, dishes too often wind up simply dull. It is another reminder of how fine the line between the two can be.
There is plenty here that is tasty, to be sure. The meal might begin with sfizi, or small bites — olives, crostini with ricotta, chicken liver pate enlivened by bright bites of pickled vegetables. The nibbles go well with a summery spritz of Aperol, Cardamaro, and prosecco.
Then bring on the antipasti and the wine, all Italian but for one bottle of Champagne. Many bottles are sourced from the south — Greco di Tufo from Campania, just the thing with shellfish; aglianico from Basilicata. (A glass of nero d’avola would be more satisfying served a few degrees cooler.) The beer list offers a few from Italy, but it’s oriented more toward domestic brews, many of them regional.
Octopus is prepared “affogato,” suckered tentacles braised and “drowned” in a tomato-y sauce with soaked biscottate, or rusks, an accompaniment that lands somewhere between panzanella, polenta, and bread pudding. It’s a bland foil for the sauce. On one visit, the dish, too, is bland. On another, it’s much better, the sauce mellow, the octopus tender, the seasoning balanced.
A section of the menu is devoted to Neapolitan street food, the fried and the doughy. Salt cod fritters are perfectly pleasant, crisp and mild and not overly salty. Panzarotti are standouts, potato croquettes filled with gooey smoked cheese, served with a sauce made from roasted peppers. Surprise: It’s green and wonderfully tangy, not the ubiquitous roasted red peppers we were expecting. Pizzetta fritta is chewy fried dough, served with slices of soppressata and provolone, carnival fare that isn’t quite as much fun in a restaurant setting.
Pasta, so wonderful in Belmont, is a particular disappointment here. Chitarra is stained black with ink, strands woven together with bites of white cuttlefish. There is plenty of visual contrast, but not much variation of flavor. The dish borders on tasteless, a bit greasy and in need of salt; the billed pepperoncini and parsley, nowhere in evidence, would do much to liven up the plate. Strozzapreti with tomato sugo, basil, and Parmigiano Reggiano is impressively boring, the kind of thing one turns out for an uninspired weeknight dinner.
There are several baked pastas, served in beautiful ceramic dishes. Gnocchetti are adorably wee dumplings that deserve to be showcased, but they get lost in the sauce and the smoked scamorza of this gooey, dense casserole. Classic lasagna is better, with a sauce that combines beef, veal, and pork, layered with ricotta, basil, and Parmigiano Reggiano. The flavors are pleasingly savory, even when the ingredients blur together. (One member of our party overhears a cook scolding another: “Lasagna has more than one layer, you know!”) Lasagna verde — with spinach, stinging nettles, artichokes, mozzarella di bufala, and fresh herbs — sounds like a lovely idea, but it’s not fully realized. It’s a deep-dish cheese fest where it ought to be spare and restrained.
Second courses are more interesting, the flavors better defined. A crisp-skinned chicken cutlet with tomato salad over a fresh-tasting tomato-basil sauce is a fine example of the kind of relaxed simplicity Il Casale shoots for. Acqua pazza is a light, bright seafood stew with cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and capers.
Side dishes are enticing — an artichoke heart gratin that would be even better with more of the promised anchovy vinaigrette, roasted cauliflower with black truffle, rich little meatballs (della nonna, of course) in tomato sauce.
And dessert is an impressive list, much more involved than the offerings at many Italian restaurants. Tiramisu, cannoli, and gelati are all here. But so are bocconcini, sweet little fritters filled with cream and dotted with Amarena cherries. Hazelnut sponge cake is complemented by creamy ricotta mousse and pears, although more mousse would improve things. A lemon semifreddo with hazelnut crunch is a pleasant ending to a summer meal. And there is a selection of Italian cookies for those who want one sweet bite with a cup of coffee.
The place looks just as it should, rustic and comfortable, with worn bricks and a vintage map of Campania that fills an entire wall. There is a lively bar scene, and the staff is warm and attentive. And de Magistris and crew are clearly still adjusting. Even as I write this, a message appears, alerting me that some dishes at the restaurant have just changed; the tweaks, it says, are designed to ensure that the food’s simplicity shines and that it can be replicated with consistency. It seems they know exactly what needs work here.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.