Italian cuisine is so interwoven with the American palate that no one, including me, thinks a chef must be from Italy to turn out great Italian food. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for growing up within a country's culinary aesthetic: familiarity, sensibility, a feeling for the history and technique of preparing and enjoying the food.
That is among Casanova's best selling points. When chef-owner Leo Capezzuto is on hand, and he usually is, it really is possible to taste Italy in Lexington.
Take bruschetta. What elsewhere is tedious tomatoes on toast is here thick slices of warm grilled bread, crisp outside and soft within, topped with a trio of tastes. There are, admittedly, tomatoes, with and without basil, but they are transformed by authentic peppery, deep green, extra-virgin olive oil. The best topping, however, was a small mountain of spicy sautéed mushrooms, with just the right amounts of salt and chili flakes.
This appetizer is a good reason to forgo the bread basket. If you want only bread, though, request it with a dish of the olive oil, minus the seemingly obligatory balsamic vinegar that obscures magnificent subtleties. You won't be sorry.
Portions are generous, so economize and make a lunch or dinner of hors d'oeuvres. If you order a starter of eggplant Parmesan with the bruschetta, you have a vegetarian meal. Two large slices of eggplant are cooked just beyond fork-tender, slathered in a slightly sweet marinara sauce and finished with melted mozzarella and Parmesan.
The menu says they are rolled in mozzarella, but don't take the menu literally. One evening, for instance, the kitchen had run out of osso buco and swordfish, both of which I was hoping to sample. I'm not sure, after tasting the overcooked veal chop Milanese, that I am sorry about missing the meat and fish.
Anyway, pastas and risottos that are served in American, i.e., entree size, more than compensated for their absence.
Try the spaghetti al dente (perhaps a touch too al dente) with clams. There must have been at least 15 clams in the bowl, and the broth was sea-salty from the clam liquor; a scattering of minced parsley added freshness and color. Elsewhere, this dish is usually too soupy or the clams are rubbery.
I loved the risotto, too. Its texture was "to the tooth" perfect, and there was silky residual starch soaking up the broth that had absorbed the flavors of earthy mushrooms and spring-fresh asparagus.
It could have used more cheese, so I requested some. What arrived, rather than the predictable hunk of Parmesan, was a little ramekin of finely grated cheese, delicate and buttery, made by Leo's brother Giovanni in Jessamine County. It's those touches, as well as the splendid side dish of bell peppers and zucchini poached in olive oil, that give Casanova a real Italian feel.
There are salads, which are fine if fresh greens are essential to your meal, and soups like very, very creamy tomato basil that was thick enough to serve as a dip.
Trying to fill the shoes left by the venerable Coach House, the last successful restaurant in this South Broadway location, is no easy task. The décor and atmosphere of Casanova, plus the menu glitches, still make that seem like work unfinished, but order right and you will experience a bit of Italian soul — something much harder to find around here than an interior designer.
Casanova Italian Restaurant
Address: 855 S. Broadway
Phone: (859) 309-3313
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 4-10 p.m. Fri.-Sun.
Other: Parking lot. Vegetarian options. Antipasti, salads and soups, $4-$15; pastas and risottos, $16-$25; entrees, $19-$29; desserts, $5.50.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.