By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
An instrumental version of "Send in the Clowns" was playing as we entered Casa Nostra, an Italian restaurant at the intersection of Mary and Oak streets in Coconut Grove. It's the sort of schmaltzy song you might hear in a neighborhood Italian joint in Brooklyn or Jersey, which is what this establishment appears to aspire to in terms of décor. Diners enter through a stark lounge area with a fully stocked bar, dining tables, and two plasma TV screens. The main dining room is slightly more welcoming, but bare tabletops, poured-cement floors, black-and-white tile wainscoting, framed film posters, and two additional TV sets do not exactly contribute much warmth. In my experience, the number of TV sets an eatery has directly correlates to how much distraction from dinner is required. In this instance, four was not enough.
Casa Nostra's cuisine is rooted in Bari, not Brooklyn, according to the restaurant bio printed on the menu. It goes on to inform that the kitchen's emphasis is on "simple home cooking like Grandma used to make back in Italy," and serves fair notice that those who "expect fine, fancy novella cuisine are probably sitting in the wrong restaurant." We weren't looking for anything of the sort, but felt we were sitting in the wrong restaurant just the same. The right restaurant automatically serves a bread basket, instead of doing so only on request. Don't bother asking. The slices tasted as if they had recently been defrosted, and the olive oil served alongside was knocking on the door of rancidity. Bread plates were not properly clean, either perhaps because the kitchen, open to and elevated from the dining room, was barely illuminated by a dead fluorescent glow. Now that I think of it, eating at one of the outdoor tables probably would have been cheerier.
Appetizers were relatively promising. Calamari gratinati resembled a Chinese sweet-and-sour dish, the breaded rings fried and then sautéed with onions and roasted red and green peppers in a light glaze of tomato sauce a tasty twist on ubiquitous squid. Salmon carpaccio was fresh, and melanzane parmigiana translated into a delicately folded slice of fried eggplant, gently sauced and capped with melted mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.
Although a "house signature fourteen-ounce meatball" is touted in the menu prose, no such item appears in the food listings, nor was it mentioned during the verbal recital of nightly specials. Ask, however, and you shall receive one mighty big ball, served beneath a plop of ricotta cheese and aside spaghetti and red sauce. In hindsight, I agree with management that the less said about this dense, dry, garlic-laden, softball-size sphere of beef, the better. Linguine with fresh baby clams in a clean, winy white sauce is a safer bet. Wines by the bottle (twenty of which are served by the glass) comprise some worthwhile Italian labels but no real bargains. The waiters are not grape-savvy, but they otherwise perform competently in the traditional Italian-restaurant style meaning a semiformal mix of flair and flubs.
"Send in the Clowns" reprised on the stereo as entrées arrived. A meaty fillet of red snapper was neatly sautéed, crowned with a cluster of toasted almond slices and diced tomatoes, and pooled in a timid lemon-wine sauce. Mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and niçoise olives made a potent partner for skinny veal scaloppine but still couldn't mask the antiquated flavor of the meat. Accompaniments to both dishes were cold stalks of broccoli and bland, barely roasted potatoes. Other main courses run the gamut from familiar chicken and veal Milanese to familiar grilled veal chop and sirloin steak with peppercorn-brandy sauce. The only uncommon selection is yellowfin tuna with sesame seeds and teriyaki sauce; I didn't try it, so I'll have to take the menu's word that it's just like Grandma used to make in Italy.
Prices are reasonable, especially considering a small romaine salad with creamy caesar dressing accompanies each main course. Appetizers amble from $6.50 to $10; pastas $10 to $15; fish and meat entrées, excepting steaks and chops, $14 to $22. Deduct a dollar or two per dish for lunch.
Desserts were better than the rest of the food. A mock napoleon with a whiff of whipped cream on top was fresh and homemade, even if pastry cream layered among the sheets of puff pastry was too loose. And a square of the same pastry dough ably encased warm apples sided by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. As we finished the sweet treats, "Send in the Clowns" came around once again. It seemed an opportune time to exit.