It has been a place I could rely on, a place I could go and know exactly what to expect.
The first restaurant my wife and I dined at in Fort Wayne was a Casa, and I have been a supporter of the local restaurant group ever since. I have heard from my share of naysayers who aren't fans of the Italian staple, but I have never had a strong aversion to any of its stores. I know what to expect, know what staples will not disappoint and am excited to try the ever-changing chef's features.
So, I was taken aback a bit by my recent visits to Casa Grille Italiano on Stellhorn Road. Yes, there were still some fine dishes and there was one feature that excited me, but it was the flaws that stood out most.
And even the legendary Casa salad was not immune.
During one visit, my small salad was just as I expected – perfectly dressed with Casa's delicious tangy, flavorful dressing, the croûtons were just crispy enough to not break a tooth and there was plenty of cheese. But during my other visit, the romaine was lazily chopped so there were big chunks I had to cut up before eating – including one inedible rib piece – and there was so little dressing it was bland.
Luckily it was during that same visit I tried the Ricotta della Casa, a scrumptious appetizer dip from the chef's features that belongs on the menu permanently. It was a big crock of baked ricotta cheese with basil and sauce topped with oozing mozzarella and provolone that was served with flatbread sticks – well-toasted thin breadsticks.
It was a joy in flavor and texture with the chewy, stretchy cheese on top, the creamy ricotta underneath and the breadsticks that were crunchy outside but soft inside. I had to switch to the regular house bread when the sticks were gone because I was not about to let any of this dip go to waste.
The Antipasto Misto, which is your basic appetizer sampler, was a safe choice, too. The fried eggplant sticks are the best part with the toasted ravioli also scoring high. The breadsticks and cheesesticks are pretty standard fare, and the only real thing this starter needed was more red sauce for dipping.
Sauce is one thing most of the red-sauced dishes at Casa Grille do not need. The red sauce pasta side was drowned in it as was the chef's feature Saccatino. These pasta purses stuffed with Italian sausage were delicious and even though there was a lot of the plum tomato sauce, that was not an issue. The addition of basil, garlic, red onions and mushrooms made this a sauce you wanted to have plenty of, and I loved the big shavings of Parmesan sitting on top.
It was the pasta that held it back, however, as it was poorly drained, so it watered down that sauce terribly. It turned what could have been a wonderful dish into a very mediocre one.
The Pollo Saltimbocca had no such issues. It, too, was drenched in its marsala wine sauce, but by saying yes when my excellent server asked if I might want extra mushrooms I lessened the sauciness on the tender, perfectly cooked chicken breast topped with prosciutto. The breast was cooked with butter and sage and topped with mozzarella. I loved every morsel of it and all those mushrooms.
I also made the right choice by getting the white shell pasta side, which also had plenty of mushrooms in its herb-infused, cream sauce.
When it comes to those sides, the plating at Casa Grille is nonexistent. My saltimbocca sat alone in the center of a large plate which makes it look like something nonchalantly slopped on it at a cafeteria. My side pasta was served in a separate dish that very easily could have been paired on a plate with the chicken. This practice also makes table space hard to come by when dining with others as nearly all the dishes are served this way.
The white sauce on my Fettuccine alla Carbonara paled in comparison to my side dish. Though I liked the cubed bits of prosciutto that dotted it, the “savory cream sauce” coating the noodles was oily and seemed as if it had broken. The texture was quite gritty, and it was simply not enjoyable. And, of course, there was a ton of it, which made avoiding it impossible.
One dish that wasn't sauced too heavily, the Pasta Pasquale, ironically had me begging for more of it. The “delicate butter and white wine sauce” seemed nonexistent in this bland capellini pasta dish that included strips of chicken, mushrooms and green onions. The pasta was bland as was the pale, dry, precooked chicken. The culprit again appeared to be poorly drained pasta as I found plenty of sauce in the bottom of my serving vessel that was too watered down to cling to the noodles.
My ails were cured by dessert at least. The tiramasu at Casa Grille was spot on with the flavors of rum, coffee and cocoa melded together perfectly. The chocolate-chip dotted canolli with its maraschino cherries on each end also could not be criticized.
And though my experiences were far less than what I am used to, I am not about to give up on Casa. Its reputation as a local staple makes it worth regular visits. I will, however, keep my fingers crossed that someone else is in charge of draining pasta when I do return.
Restaurant: Casa Grille Italiano
Address: 6340 Stellhorn Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Ricotta della Casa ($7.99), antipasto ($11.99), Saccatino ($14.99), Pollo Saltimbocca ($16.79), Fettucine alla Carbonara ($14.99), Pasta Pasquale ($13.99), tiramasu ($7.29), cannoli ($4.29)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Casa Grille Italiano
Out of a possible five
• The fettuccine Alfredo, usually a safe option, had a terribly chalky sauce that lacked the buttery goodness of a good Alfredo.
• I had nary a complaint about my stuffed shells, which were bursting with ricotta. Mozzarella and Parmesan added flavor and texture to the filling and there was plenty of cheese to offset the copious amount of red sauce.
• The Vitello Al Parmigiana had decently flavored breading, but the cut of veal it surrounded was very tough.
• The atmosphere at Casa Grille is lively and inviting, but the noise level sometimes gets out of hand, making conversing a challenge.