What a restaurant decides to give you for free can tell you volumes about the place. At Casa Antica, when you sit down an abbondanza appears, three kinds of bread – baguette, garlic knots and pizza – plus a triple-threat relish tray of caponata, pickled vegetables and chunky olive-garlic mash. The message is clear as consommé: Grandma loves you so much she will feed you until you cry for mercy. Fortunately, this Italian grandmother can really cook. ¶ Turns out it’s not a grandmother in the back, but this is one family Italian restaurant that’s actually a family operation. Jack Soldano is executive chef, daughter Angela is the owner, and son Calogero is the chef running the kitchen. Their dining room is decked in Italian tchotchkes and art, with sturdy wooden chairs and a paper-topped table sporting two kinds of bottled water. Our server whisked them away when we chose tap.
The penurious could make a light meal from the openers alone. All three bread choices had their own charms. The caponata was a tomatoey sweet-and-sour relish; chopped peppers, red onion, celery and carrots were lightly pickled and fresh. A rough mash of green olives and garlic confirmed that Casa Antica isn’t the sort of Italian restaurant that’s afraid of garlic.
Appetizers, normally $12, are half-price Tuesday and Wednesday, so we asked for banana peppers, arancini, fried ravioli and calamari, which comes in flour or bread crumb- coated versions. (We chose floured.) Also, Caesar and house salads (both $9).
Entrees were standard Italian-American choices like pastas, risotto ($24), gnocchi, veal scallopine ($24) and osso buco ($28). What was unusual were some of the elaborations, like chicken Sorrentino ($22), chicken breast topped with a mountain of eggplant, prosciutto, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms and a small whole artichoke.
We got that. Plus the gnocchi pesto, osso buco, risotto and veal Marsala.
The stuffed peppers were surprisingly good, four long chiles split open and stuffed with salami and a little pecorino cheese. There was more meat than cheese inside, rare in the universe of Buffalo-style stuffed peppers, but the cheese sauce more than made up for it. The pair of arancini came in two styles, one with ground beef, peas and tomato sauce, the other a spinach version, with Gorgonzola sauce. Both were outstanding, with distinct grains of rice inside their crisp, golden shells.
Four ravioli got a crumb coat before frying, satisfying with the accompanying marinara, which was spiked with cheese sauce. The calamari rings were tender inside their beige coating, which was softer than I prefer, but acceptable. Zucchini strips had been fried too, turning mushy.
The Caesar salad came with a hard-boiled egg and an anchovy fillet, supporting a gutsy version. The house salad, fresh and hearty, was big enough for two or three to share. Mixed greens were topped with shredded carrot, walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese, cherry tomatoes, sliced apples and cucumbers in the house Italian dressing.
The risotto arrived sporting four tender scallops bronzed in a skillet, and sautéed cherry tomatoes. Mixed with chopped asparagus, the rice was cooked well, enriched with plenty of cheese. “There’s so much,” Cat said, not unhappily, and we took the rest home.
The gnocci pesto was plenty rich, in a basil cream sauce with flecks of chile, sun-dried tomatoes and toasty pine nuts. The potato dumplings were gummy, though.
The veal Marsala, served with roasted potatoes, was disappointing because the floured crust became pasty in the sweet sauce. The meat was fine, plentiful and tender.
Chicken Sorrentino was a delicious mountain of food, adorned with an artichoke like an edible corsage. If only flavors of components like the prosciutto weren’t overshadowed by the eggplant. “Too much,” its owner said, but you bet those leftovers went home, too.
Osso buco, served on risotto with more asparagus, was a classic hunger crusher. The veal shank’s meat was tender and silky, like Italian pot roast. More good risotto and porcini cream elevated its richness, but stopped short of overkill.
For dessert, we had a cannoli ($7), tiramisu ($9), limoncello sorbet ($8), and coffee and pistachio gelato (both $9). The cannoli had a terrific crunchy crust with sweetened ricotta filling, and the tiramisu was an airy dream of coffee and chocolate. The gelatos were like flavored soft-serve custard topped with pistachios or coffee syrup, a minor disappointment at that price. The limoncello dessert was sweet, tangy and refreshing.
Service was swift and thorough during our meal.
Don’t expect flights of gourmet fancy here. Casa Antica serves many of the dishes you know from other Italian-American family restaurants. The Soldano family just does it better than most.
Casa Antica: 8 plates
Italian-American classics done right in family-run Lewiston restaurant.
WHERE: 490 Center St., Lewiston (754-2581, www.casaanticarestaurant.com)
HOURS: 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday; 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Soups, salads and antipasti, $6-$12; pastas, $15-$28; entrees $20-$28.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.