Thursday, September 27, 2007

Close to Home, La Casalinga

A true homestyle meal evokes a special sense of emotion unattainable through few cuisines. It brings back memories of family dinners, nostalgic days of our past, and reminds us who the arbiter of homestyle is – grandma herself.

Only a handful of restaurants truly capture the essence of such a meal. Most leave it up to the actual mothers at home or the grandmother you visit every blue moon. But when in need of a fine Italian, home-cooked meal, La Casalinga gets as close to home as you’ll ever be.

A trattoria of bare bones and hodge podge attitude, Casalinga embodies the spirit of a whimsical residential kitchen. The walls are painted white brick, covered in eclectic pieces of art that show no correlation to each other. The music in the background is completely random, ranging from classical rock to reggae and jazz.

A counter filled with the day’s desserts and a couple bottles of beer separates off patrons from its back quarters. Above, rests a wine rack filled to capacity with reds and whites. But instead of finding old mama Maria in the back, a couple of male cooks and the sole waiter hover about busily.

Their dishes are not innovative, trendy or price gouging in the least. Instead, they stick to well-known staples such as pastas, salads, paninis and a couple of braised meats.

My Maiale Ubriaco was highly disappointing, sadly enough. A slow roasted pork tenderloin in an adequately flavorful red wine sauce, tasted of a slightly heated piece of rubber coated in herbs. Beside it, more dependable mates of roasted rosemary potatoes and buttery green beans offered another pathway to satiation.

Unlike the trendy restaurants that pop up here and there, most notably in Hell’s Square of the Lower East Side throughout the past few months, La Casalinga is out to impress few.

They stick to what they know and what they do best. Friendly service, earnest care and capricious check-ups. My waiter, fumbling around as best as he could to find his glasses and the menus, did what he could to make sure all came out well.

When bread was needed, he went to the back and sawed off fresh slices from a sesame loaf. When glasses became empty, he noticed them eventually.

But how could one be mad at a place that lacks a packed house full of snotty customers who come only to be seen. At a high point, the 8-table nook was filled halfway to capacity.

Those who showed up were loyal patrons who came for company, food and atmosphere.

Their pasta dishes are in fact the reason why customers keep showing up. Robust and spicy sauces combined with asparagus, wild mushrooms and goat cheese are just a sampling of what they have to offer.

Sweet and succulent, the pasta is tender yet with a slight firmness in bite. The creamy sauce of the Fusilli agli Aspargi offered a perplexing tang that almost seemed citrusy.

The other flavors play around with a few bits of seafood here and there, along with cream-based sauces and other vegetables. With two dozen to choose from, the menu covers the general hackneyed gamut.

What La Casalinga offers is a home away from home - a meal cooked by the mother not there to cook meals. It is not great nor is it horrible. It merely offers what the name implies, simple “housewife” meals.

For the price you pay the meals are fine. A homemade tiramisu, a bit watery yet still enjoyable, tastes like that a grandma would make. Slightly imperfect and sloppy, yet all the better because its authenticity.

And that is exactly what this First Avenue doll has to offer. Simple meals with a cozy family feel and a dose of fallibility thrown on in.

La Casalinga
120 1st Avenue @ E 7th St
3 – 11:30pm, Sunday - Monday

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