Il Casale — the "country house"— may be more rustic than Chef Dante de Magistris's magisterial and experimental restaurant Dante in the Cambridge Royal Sonesta, but it ain't no hometown spaghetti shack. The menu and price points of this 130-seat former firehouse draw as much upon the chef's experience cooking in the fine restaurants of Northern Italy as on the visits to his grandmother east of Naples. If you can spare the money, and make a reservation well in advance, you'll enjoy pan-Italian food done masterfully in modest Italian portions.
|Il Casale | 50 Leonard Street, Belmont | 617.209.4942 | Open Tuesday–Thursday, 5–9:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5–10 pm; and Sunday, 5–9:30 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access|
De Magistris is here joined by his two brothers and father. You know the family means business from the first pour of olive oil, soaked into some rough, crusty bread. The extra-virgin variety hits all four classic notes: flowery, grassy, nutty, and — the quality most prized by connoisseurs — bitter-peppery. Any addition to it or that bread basket would be wrong.
The menu inserts little bites, "sfizi," to the usual Italian division of the meal into antipasti, primi (pasta courses, available in two sizes), secondi (protein courses), and contorni (vegetable side dishes).
All sfizi cost $5, and most are spherical, so we had a planetary system worth of snacks. The most stunning were arancini, three of the most genuinely crisp rice balls ever, smaller than golf balls, with a bit of smoked cheese to set off the slightly sweet tomato sauce. "Maiale" are a couple of near-baseball pork meatballs with a lighter flavor in a peppery sauce. "Carne," traditional meatballs, give the tomato sauce the richness of homemade gravy. And "baccala" are fish balls in a Sicilian sweet-sour scheme with golden raisins and pine nuts around the inescapably fishy flavor of salt cod.
You could order a small pasta course as an appetizer, but we had two large ones as entrées with two secondi. The ravioli ($11/small; $19/large) were soft and slightly sweet, despite sage to cut the squash stuffing and brown butter to modulate the almonds and crushed amaretto cookies. Tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($12; $21) were narrower ribbons than most, really fettuccine, with the classic ragu meat sauce. The large portion was not up to entrée expectations and arrived at the table lukewarm, the only such issue in a complex dinner in a rather large dining room. The modestly sized "misto griglia" ($19) had enough flavor for two big seafood platters, especially from a grilled and boned sardine. Stuffed calamari, not the easiest to grill, were masterfully flavored and toothsome, with a simple breadcrumb stuffing.
Osso bucco ($19) was served on a long plate with three identical objects. But instead of the artfully composed triplicates of the nouvelle-American style, each was a hearty piece of slow-cooked veal shin, dusted with a gremolata of lemon peel and parsley. The only things I missed were the extra sauce on some pasta, and the bit of marrow one can sometimes work out of the larger bones.