Dining Review

Casa San Carlo's mouthwatering menu goes beyond pictures

CorrespondentDecember 20, 2012 

  • Casa San Carlo 9660-145 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh 919-676-3262 italianfoodraleigh.com facebook.com/casasancarloraleigh Cuisine: Italian Rating: *** Prices: $$-$$$ Atmosphere: casually romantic Noise level: low to moderate Service: welcoming and eager-to-please, occasional minor lapses Recommended: calamari, eggplant rollatini, veal dishes, seafood specials Open: Lunch and dinner daily; lunch buffet $8.95. Reservations: accepted Other: full bar (excellent wine list); accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; small sidewalk patio; parking in lot; live music Sunday nights. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

On Casa San Carlo’s Facebook page you’ll find nearly a thousand pictures, the overwhelming majority of them of food served at the restaurant. Most are of finished dishes – New York-style pizzas, pasta dishes and plated entrees, many featuring fresh seafood. Scores of photos showcase the $8.95 lunch buffet that has won a strong following.

Occasionally, the photographer ventures into the kitchen. Among the most recent additions to the album, there’s one of executive chef Carlo Cappiello proudly hoisting the 3-foot grouper that he would transform that night into one of a half-dozen specials.

In another picture, he’s holding up a couple of 11-pound lobsters. Those would become lobster ravioli in a sherry cream sauce. In yet another, the subject is a stainless steel bowl filled with colossal U-12 scallops. The chef paired these with jumbo shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh herbs in a parmesan cream sauce over linguine.

The Facebook album documents Casa San Carlo’s offering so thoroughly, in fact, that it serves as a fairly reliable guide to the menu. The snapshot of the scallop, shrimp and linguine special is a faithful rendering of the dish as it was served to me one night.

Same goes for the complimentary basket of house-baked garlic knots and tomato-smeared bruschetta. And first-rate eggplant rollatini, which you can get as an entree or as part of a hot antipasto platter, where it’s joined by clams, mussels, shrimp and stuffed shells, all blanketed in a garlicky marinara. And mushroom-studded chicken cacciatore, and – well, pretty much everything I ordered over the course of two visits.

For all their mouthwatering accuracy, though, the photos don’t tell the whole story. They show you a pizza in sharp detail, from blistery crust to patchwork of sauce and cheese glistening with the rendered fat of pepperonis. But they don’t show you the bottom of the pie which, as you’ll learn only once you’ve ordered it, is nicely browned.

A picture can tantalize you with a plate of caper-spangled veal scaloppine piccata, but it can’t reveal how tender the veal is. As it turns out, quite tender. Same goes for fried calamari – all rings, lightly breaded, served with warm marinara and lemon wedges.

Then, too, there’s the question of perspective. Without anything else in the picture for comparison, there’s no way to know that a bowl of homemade soup (pasta e fagioli, stracciatella, or tortellini in brodo) is far larger than you bargained for. Pretty much everything, for that matter, lives up to the Italian restaurant tradition of generous portions. Plan on taking home leftovers.

On the flip side, a picture isn’t likely to reveal the flaws in a dish. Clams breaded too heavily, for instance, are hidden underneath all that marinara sauce on the antipasto platter. And it’s a good bet that any picture of a pasta side like the one I was served one night – insufficiently drained, leaving a puddle of pasta cooking water to dilute the sauce in the bottom of the bowl – never made it into the album. Happily, judging by the overall experience, I’d wager that few such pictures had to be edited out.

Casa San Carlo’s most recent profile picture features a smiling Carlo Cappiello holding a magnum of red wine. That’s especially fitting, as the restaurant’s wine list has more than doubled in the past year, and now boasts a strongly Italian-leaning collection of some 100 wines. Monday nights, when all bottles (including a reserve list of rarer labels) are half price, are an especially good time to explore.

Scroll down the photo album, and you’ll come across a few shots of the dining room – two small rooms, actually, separated by wrought iron interwoven with faux grapevines and fairy lights. Plush floor-to-ceiling drapes, Italian landscapes and ornate-framed mirrors on camel walls, and tables draped in black and white linens set a casually romantic mood. You can’t hear Sinatra crooning in the background, but you can be sure he is.

You can also bet that, even on a busy night, Carlo Cappiello will make the rounds of the dining room, shaking hands and chatting with patrons, giving old friends a pat on the back. No doubt many of those friendships were formed during the 16 years when Cappiello was owner/chef of Casalinga.

He left that restaurant to take over as executive chef and general manager of Casa San Carlo in November of last year – which, not coincidentally, is when the restaurant’s Facebook page begins. Scrolling back through the months of photos, sprinkled among all those food shots, you’ll see enough smiling faces to suggest that Carlo Cappiello brought more than culinary talent with him. He brought a congenial personality and a gift for hospitality, reinvigorating an established restaurant that will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year.

I can’t wait to see the Facebook pictures of the celebration.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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