nce upon a time, you couldn’t drive anywhere without spotting a locally owned Italian restaurant. Strip malls were prime spots for such family friendly places, which specialized in spaghetti, veal saltimbocca and chicken cacciatore.
Over the past decade, chain restaurants have cornered this marketplace. Yet at least one suburban restaurant has survived the invasion—and has thrived in spite of it.
La Casa Pasta in Newark, founded in 1978 by chef-owner Giuseppe Martuscelli, is an institution, the go-to spot for families, business diners, couples and friends.
Faithful clientele know what to expect. The comfortable Route 896 landmark has undergone no trendy makeover. The exposed brick, fussy oil paintings and stone statues are the stereotypical Italian-American décor. The beamed ceilings, meanwhile, are pure old Newark.
The menu has stayed faithful to the time-honored dishes you’d find in Little Italy sections throughout the country. Think lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo, linguini with red or white clam sauce, and at least 12 veal dishes. You can order Merlot, Chianti and Pinot Grigio by the carafe. (There is also an excellent wine list.)
La Casa Pasta’s ability to prepare favorite dishes is evident. A tangle of angel hair pasta could become mush in less experienced hands. Here, the glistening threads are still firm, the perfect platform for a rich, scarlet sauce fragrant with garlic and fresh herbs. Plump, sweet mussels splashed in an equally aromatic sauce, a blend of diced tomatoes and oregano. A touch of red pepper added a zesty kick.
Savory juices from a medley of sautéed onions and mushrooms pooled under veal medallions. But the thick blanket of mozzarella mixed with the onions and mushrooms made me think of an upscale cheese steak. A little less of both would let the veal shine.
The chicken cacciatore surprised my husband, who recalled that on our first date here in 1982 the chicken was so tender it slipped off the bone. On our most recent visit, the chicken was already boned and cut into medallions. Though we missed that slow-cooked touch, we agreed that the ribbons of sweet peppers and meaty mushrooms lived up to our memories.
But the poached pear in the prosciutto appetizer was too fresh. Though nicely fanned across the plate, the unripe fruit was crunchy, without a shred of sweetness. We pushed it aside in favor of the rosy, thick-cut piles of prosciutto.
Now the two major misses: sautéed calamari rings squished in my mouth, eliciting images of canned squid, and its white wine-butter sauce tasted burnt.
Speaking of canned, the crabmeat atop an otherwise well-prepared whole tilapia was discernably briny. Since the can was tapped, there was no way for the kitchen to taste-test it, our server said. He willingly took it off the bill.
Aside from letting it slip that the kitchen used canned crabmeat, service was excellent. The efficient staff was attentive and courteous. There was no long wait for dessert—a cannoli and tiramisu, of course.
At La Casa Pasta, it seems, the classics are always in style.
La Casa Pasta
Route 896, Newark
A popular special features fusilli pasta
from Salerno, Italy. The pasta is tossed with pomodorini tomatoes, mussels, clams, shrimp and scallops topped
with grilled shrimp