Were I to condense my experience and feelings towards the relatively new restaurant La Casa Ristorante down to a single word, warmth would be the one that comes to mind.
From its predominantly wooden decor to its casual & friendly hospitality. Even down to the comforting, unpretentious food. Food that seems more like mama’s home cooking than “restaurant food”.
Well, for the most part. Not every home can boast about having a wood fire oven at their disposal to bake pizzas in.
La Casa Ristorante is owned & operated by Carmel Ruggeri, self-proclaimed queen of the twitterverse (@CarmR on Twitter) and her brother Tony. The restaurant’s cuisine primarily draws from the family’s Sicilian roots. Origins that are reinforced with a number of prints posted around the restaurant, giving the dining area an Italian, or at least a European, feel to the space.
Dining at La Casa Ristorante, for me, wasn’t just an experience of another country’s cuisine. It was also an education in their food, culture and their language. The service from Carmel & her husband Smiley, who was helping out with table service, was impeccable to this regard. Warm, friendly, attentive & engaging; I felt more like a guest of an Italian household than as a patron of a suburb restaurant.
Though to be fair, we’d dined during a quieter part of the week. Experiences may differ if you happen to dine there during one of their busier evenings.
Polpette della Mamma ($14), which translates to Mama’s Meatballs, is the mother’s recipe for delicately soft meatballs served with a simple tomato sauce. The meatballs are extremely delicate and tender; barely able to hold themselves together. Slices of fresh bread are also provided to mop up any left over sauce.
Capricciosa Pizza ($19). Since this restaurant houses a wood fired oven, there was no question that a pizza would be ordered.
Discarded crusts would be an unlikelihood as the dough was flavourful and pleasantly chewy. The pizza base was an integral part of the whole; not just some bland vessel for the toppings.
As nice as the pizza tasted, one letdown for me was that, towards the centre, the pizza was quite sloppy, likely due to the moisture from the sauce base and ingredients.
Beef Short Ribs ($34). After inquiring about the nature & style of the ribs, I was escorted to a table of diners (friends of the owners) and shown a serve of beef ribs (or at least half of one by the time I got to it), along with a side of chunky fries. Though I’d only intended on taking a photo, which they were kind enough to allow me to do, they also insisted that I try the ribs out for myself.
After looking at that, how could I turn down such an offer?
The ribs, glazed with a sweet American-style BBQ sauce, were really tender, having been slow roasted for many hours (eight from memory).
As strange as this thought seems to me, I feel like I should come back to this Italian restaurant for their American style ribs. You know, to confirm my opinions on this dish. I mean how much can you really judge on a single mouthful of food…?
Gamberi all’aglio con pomodorini piccante e verjuice ($17). By the generousity of the house, we were fortunate enough to sample these perfectly cooked garlic prawns, flavoured with garlic, tomatoes, chili & verjuice.
The flavours were rather milder than some of its more pungent flavours would otherwise imply, which can either be a good or bad thing depending on your personal preference.
Pappardelle con pancetta e fungi, vino bianco e crema ($20). Wide ribbons of fresh pappardelle pasta serve with a creamy white wine sauce with pancetta & swiss brown mushrooms. The pasta was cooked well and the balance of the sauce was just right so that it was neither too thick, too dry, nor too watery.
Vitello con funghi e spinaci ($23). Thin slices of veal served with mushroom, wilted baby spinach and covered in a cream sauce. When asked about the dish, the person who had ordered this as their main, simply uttered “It’s ok”, with a bit of a shrug. Unfortunately, I don’t have more to go on than that.
Coniglio in Agrodolce ($24). This rabbit dish on the other hand I can comment on quite extensively, as this was my main for the evening. It was also the very first time I’ve ever had rabbit, so I was rather apprehensive about how this dish would taste.
For those of you who have yet to dine on a rabbit dish, the best way that I can describe it is that it tastes like chicken, but with a texture that I liken to tinned tuna.
It was an unusual thing to get my head around. My brow was furrowed throughout this portion of the meal, unsure of whether or not I liked rabbit. It wasn’t the taste. It tastes like chicken and I like chicken. It was a combination of the texture and the minefield of small bones that I found issue with.
My feelings for the sauce on the other hand are as clear as crystal. The tomato-based sauce for this dish, with olives, pine nuts, raisins, capers & balsamic vinegar, was phenomenal! Rich, sweet with a hint of sourness; there is good reason why a large slice of fresh bread is served with this dish. Despite the carbohydrate load of the previous course, I found myself wanting another slice of bread to wipe the plate clean of its ethereal elixir.
We were also given a ‘Nsalata Portualla ($8), an orange & fennel side salad (not pictured) with compliments of the house. This small salad had a clean, refreshing taste to it; which helps to contrast from the warm, rich flavours of the main meals.
I seemed to be the only one of my dining party game for dessert. So unfortunately a shared dessert such as the Pizza di nutella ($18), Nutella Pizza with strawberries & mascarpone (not pictured), was out of the question. However, it’s something I’d love to check out at some other time, especially with their pizza bases!
Tartaletta di frangipane con composta di frutta ($12). The frangipane and marmalade tart is warm with a soft, moist texture; similar in flavour and texture to a friand. No surprise considering that both are built from a base of almond meal.
Served a la mode with a fresh strawberry, it was a great way to cap off the evening.
La Casa Ristorante is fully licensed restaurant. So not only do you have your standard options of wines and other alcoholic beverages, but there is also a list of cocktails to choose from, with a lot of the common favourites available.
Rather than go for a dessert, one of our dining party opted for a Toblerone cocktail, complete with cherry garnish, as an after dinner drink.
With a warmth of hospitality that I’ve not seen in a restaurant for quite some time, La Casa Ristorante stands apart from your run-o’-the-mill suburban restaurant, and is certainly a class above a lot of other restaurants in the area. That, along with easy street parking options, makes La Casa Ristorante an attractive alternative to the Italian districts of Leichhardt, or even Haberfield.
The garlic prawns & orange & fennel side salad were complimentary dishes provided by La Casa Ristorante. All other items (aside from the ribs for obvious reasons) were paid for.
Edit: I’d incorrectly attributed Smiley to Carmel’s brother. Smiley is actually her husband. Awkward… Sincerest apologies to all parties involved.
Tues – Sun: 5pm til late.