The restaurant across from Truro Church on Main Street has many former lives. Once Café Italia II, more recently Vinnie's, and as of Memorial Day weekend, the Grand Opening sign belongs to Casa Italia.
Owner Dan Harmon hopes his Italian expert chef, renovated patio and aggressive marketing strategy will keep Casa Italia successful for a long time on the fringes of downtown Fairfax.
Patch foodie Nancy Loughin stopped by last week for a peek at the new restaurant:
Harmon greeted us at our seats. He was gregarious, quickly handing us one of his business cards. I asked about a specific ingredient in his sauces and got an enthusiastic and thorough answer.
It was a warm summer evening so we sat outside in Casa Italia's spacious covered patio area. The chairs were new and comfortable, and the tables were attractive with their crisp white linens and place settings. Their outdoor patio would be the perfect place for a wedding rehearsal dinner, as it could easily become a large “private” dining area.
Setting and ambience aside, we were eager to start on dinner. Casa Italia needs to stand out from more than a handful of other Italian restaurants within the city limits. An Italian chef with a penchant for homemade fare might be just what this restaurant needs.
The chef, Mary Etchechuri, moved to the United States with the Italian embassy 30 years ago, Harmon said. She is the former owner of Roma Bakery and Pasta Pascale, which provided bread and pasta for high end restaurants in the Washington D.C. metro area.
We split a large serving of the mussels in red sauce for an appetizer. The mussels were slathered in a thick marinara sauce, and with slices of bread served at the beginning, we sopped up all of the extra sauce. Though the Caesar salad did not have the distinctive vinegar ‘bite’ of a great dressing, the opening act more than made up for it with a solid house Chianti.
Their nightly “specials” are the stars of the show. My spinach cannelloni was served with a mixture of red and white Alfredo sauce over a tender, delicious pasta. The spinach filling was creamy and well-seasoned. My husband ordered a spicy marinara shrimp. He was thrilled with the zippy hotness of the thick red sauce with lots of fresh Italian parsley and fresh tomato flavors. The depth of flavor in the sauces signal that the courses were all homemade. We were pleased with the gnocchi. It was tender and delicate, not overworked, and a succulent in its creamy sauce.
A weak link is their desserts. The tiramisu was just average in taste (almost no coffee liqueur flavor) and it was firm and not as creamy as I would have preferred. Stick with their cheesecake or their cannoli.
This is a good start for a successful restaurant, and their attention to the homemade sauces and pastas will start to generate a loyal clientele. One other plus is that even on a busy Saturday evening, there was plenty of parking on the side and around the back of the restaurant, which is a definite plus for customers.
While the service was very attentive, it was poorly orchestrated. We were frequently asked by different servers if we had ordered our next course. There seemed to be overlap with the service, as our salad course arrived at the same time as our appetizer. At the end, we were served and finished our dessert long before our coffees arrived. Again, this can be easily ironed out with more training and coordinating with assigned wait staff. They were attentive, but too many servers were asking the same questions again and again.
The best part of this restaurant, homemade cuisine aside, is the value for the prices. The courses are not overpriced, especially considering the portions. Drop by and make sure to order a large cannoli serving for only $11.95.