Thursday, May 21, 2009
A dinner Tony Soprano would kill for
With the fleet of luxury cars sitting in the parking lot, Casa Dante conjures up images of suited up mobsters deep in a tet-a-tet over red wine and heaps of pasta...the kind of boys' club I dare not intrude. Even the dark wood exterior conveys an off-limits attitude, safeguarding an insular world too exclusive for regular "civilians." But why continue to feel intimidated and miss out on authentic Southern Italian food from a state-renowned restaurant? If I run into the likes of John Gotti types, I'm willing to be hazed.
Two friends, Kim and Rebecca, were game enough to join me in crashing Casa Dante (thanks, ladies!). Actually, I made same day reservations and was surprised an 8:30 time slot was available for this Saturday night. It was an ideal segue from watching the George Cukor-directed movie "Dinner at 8" at the luxurious Loews Jersey theater. When we got inside Casa Dante, we were immediately greeted by a gregarious host who informed me the girl who jotted down my name spelled it "dente." I was stumped at such bizarre buffoonery and retorted back with a "Oh, like al dente?" How appropo. Maybe the thread of spelling similiarities between Dante, dente and Dani got her all befuddled.
But I was befuddled myself at Casa Dante's interior, a bright and airy space opposite of the Godfather-darkness I envisioned before. And even more surprising was the lack of patrons-the room was completely empty. Fortunately, we were provided the option to sit in the back room, where a Sinatra "knockoff" was crooning away as the night's entertainment. The room wasn't buzzing with diners galore, but a decent number of couples and families filled the geometric-patterned seats. We remarked that the half moon of the furniture arrangement and the performer belting away on the floor reminded us of dining at a wedding reception.
Service was annoyingly over attentive. A swarm of waiters approached us right away. The leader of the pack was especially eager, constantly swinging by to oversell the menu, thereby not providing us the peace we needed to concentrate on our choices. Interestingly enough, all three of us opted for the pappardelle with lamb osso bucco as our main entree. Our selection of appetizers were more on the individualistic side. Rebecca ordered a colorful plate of avocado salad while Kim chose a pairing of sweet and salty prosciutto and honeydew melon. I got playful with a duo of breaded mushroom risotto balls dunked in a zingy, rich tomato sauce. The exterior retained its crisp goodness while the interior remained decadently rich. We all couldn't get enough of our hearty entree, especially the gargantuan-sized lamb shank, its gamey meat falling effortlessly off the bone. The red-wine spiked gravy was minimal in amount, therefore not upstaging the lamb or the soft ribbons of papardalle. For the grand finale, Kim ordered a pecan pie with vanilla ice cream and Rebecca chose a vanilla and chocolate cake. A new "lifestyle" rule I've been prescribing to: order either an appetizer or dessert, not both like the old days. I have to admit, though, I didn't want to be left out of this sweet escape so I indulged in a cappuccino as an alternative. It was probably the best capp I've ever downed, ultra rich yet lightly frothy in taste. In retrospect, I'm sure the calories tallied up to an alarming number.
For the most part Casa Dante excels, bringing forth classic Southern Italian food with a contemporary twist. It's a rare gem that shimmers in a part of Jersey City more infamous for its line-up of hole-in-the-walls. Sitting there in our "Saturday Best," while being sung to and dining on luxurious food, we felt glamorous and spoiled like Jean Harlow's character in "Dinner at 8." The only missing element during this evening was the stereotypical Tony Soprano figure we were hoping to see. Maybe he'll be next weekend's entertainment.
737 Newark Ave.
Jersey City, NJ 07306
Web site: www.casadante.com