I am not sure how many times it is possible to say, "This the best ________ I have ever had" in one night, but FoodieDaddy and I lost count in our recent meal at Il Casale in Belmont. I had high expectations for this place. We have eaten twice at Chef (and owner) Dante de Magistris' first restaurant Dante in Cambridge and loved it. (You can read about it here and here.) So when we heard that the De Magistris brothers had opened Il Casale, (Dante owns the restaurant with brothers Damien and Filippo), and we were then invited by the De Magistris brothers to try their new restaurant, we couldn't pencil in the babysitter quickly enough.
The De Magistris brothers are originally from Belmont, though their family is from Il Candida in the Apulia region of Italy. So opening Il Casale in a former fire station (built in 1899), offered them the chance to create their own restaurant from scratch and to do it in their hometown. Most of the dishes are from their grandmother's recipes and her image watches over the kitchen. Reclaimed wood tables lean against the original brick walls of the fire station, while Venetian-style glass lanterns hang from the high ceilings It is clear that this restaurant is both a labor of love and an homage to their family.
We started the evening by swooning over the burrata-a heavenly creamy cheese flown in from Apulia (pictured at the top of this post). Topped with crunchy pistachios, it literally melted in the mouth. The "carne", meatballs made using a technique passed on by Dante's grandmother were so tender and delicate that they dissolved as soon as I ate them. The "fegatini" or chicken liver bruschetta would convince even the most jaded person to love liver. My husband insists that the de Magistris brothers should bottle their "pepperonata" or the sweet and sour peppers. And we both questioned the inappropriateness of asking for an entire moist loaf of the potato bread, made especially for Il Casale by the amazing B and R Bakery with, yet again, their grandmother's recipe.The pasta courses were just as good. I have eaten many gnocchi and most are heavy, floury pieces of dough that could be used as hockey pucks. These were the lightest I have ever eaten. Yet the squash-filled ravioli stole the thunder from the delicious gnocchi. I admit that I was skeptical as this dish is featured on so many menus. But somehow, this preparation made the others seem like poor imitations. My husband called these "Italian French Toast" as he mopped up every bit of the caramelized brown butter sauce that coated the crushed almonds and the silky and ethereal pasta. I enjoyed Chef Dante's spin on pasta carbonara here as much as at Restaurant Dante. The homemade pasta is created with guitar strings (!) and then coated with Parmesan, organic egg and a fine dice of crispy and decadently fatty guanciale.
We didn't think the main dishes could stand up to the earlier courses. But they did. The trout was one of the best fish dishes I have eaten-and I don't even typically enjoy trout. It was the sheer simplicity that made it stand out. (For the record, this picture does not do it justice!) The fresh trout was split and stuffed with thin slices of orange and lemon. It was then grilled on the wood burning oven. The resulting trout was remarkably moist, tasting of the ocean, the smokey mesquite and the citrus. Combined with bitefuls of the fennel salad and the "salsa Genovese" (a pesto with capers, olives and citrus), I couldn't stop eating it despite being so full. My husband enjoyed his wood grilled Waygu steak (flown in from Australia), that was served with a balsamic reduction.
I had high hopes for the minestra, a traditional dish of broth created by stewing pigs' feet and tails and then topped with slowly braised escarole and dandelion greens. Sitting inside the bowl was a slice of cornmeal, slowly cooked in a skillet. The cornmeal pizza was outstanding, combining the nutty roasted taste of popcorn with the creaminess of polenta. However, I was disappointed by the broth which was so salty that I struggled to eat it. I am tempted to order it again next time, as I suspect the saltiness was a fluke and becomes the polenta was so darn good! Our meal was accompanied by spinach sauteed with marscapone, a homey eggplant "parmigianetta" and mixed mushrooms that were tender and woodsy.
As full as we were we couldn't resist the chance to try one of my favorite dishes of all time- Dante's frittelle. Served with a dark chocolate sauce that is so good you could eat it straight, the eggy fritters were...good. I am not sure if I was simply too full to enjoy them, was mourning the ginger creme anglaise that accompanies them at Dante (the restaurant) or they weren't quite as well done as at the original Dante. However, the panna cotta liberally sprinkled with vanilla beans was a perfect foil for sopping up sweetened strawberries and the decadent tiramisu was delicious...for breakfast the next day!Although the Dante brothers invited us in this time, we will be back many times more-I already promised my mother I would take her! Il Casale combines the fantastic food of Dante with a more casual and rustic atmosphere that makes it easy to return to, even for a quick bite. The varied menu also makes it accessible to people in a range of price points, from the $5.00 sfizi (or Italian tapas), to the $10.00 homemade pastas, to the most expensive item: a $24.00 wood grilled steak. They also offer a children's menu that has a range of dishes from pastas for $10.00 to a homemade chicken cutlet for $14.00. And in fact, there were a number of kids there on the night we dined, happily digging into big plates of pasta. If your goal is to sample as much of this fabulous food as possible, there are two tasting options (called "La Famiglia.) You can share 4 course meal for $35.00 a person, or a more elaborate one for $60.00.
Il Casale just opened and like any new restaurant the de Magistris brothers are still tightening it up. They will be adding more soundproofing to lessen the din from the brick walls and high ceilings. They are also planning to add lunch later this summer.
Long story short-go and try. The food is honest, good and just has soul. I promise you won't be disappointed.
Il Casale, 50 Leonard St., Belmont 617-209-4942
Restaurant Dante, 40 Edwin Land Blvd, Cambridge, 617-497-4200