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Rethinking Cavallario’s Cucina

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Just when you thought the art of fine dining was a thing of the past, Cavallario’s Cucina has gone the extra mile to prove otherwise.

Let’s face it. You can hardly find a place to park outside Buffalo Wild Wings, Cici’s Pizza or the Five Guys burger joint on any given night. We live in a fast-food world, geared to the fast-paced lifestyle we’ve all fallen victim to these days.

But check the parking lot at Café Mira in Adams, or 1844 House outside Potsdam, or Cavallario’s Cucina in Watertown on any given night and you may be surprised. There still are folks who appreciate food prepared properly and creatively by chefs who have a passion for their art.

Cavallario’s just celebrated its 15th year in business, quite a milestone for any business in today’s economy. Owners Peter and Brenda Cavallario closed their restaurant temporarily in March to reflect on the past and renew their focus for the future.

Today, you’ll find a dozen new competitively priced dishes on the menu, an expanded wine selection, as well as upgrades to the bar and dining areas. What has remained the same, however, is their commitment to quality food and great customer service.

Nothing has changed on the exterior of the building. It’s a big, old house that has been added on to over the years. An attractive maroon awning guides you to the entrance. There’s a welcoming foyer with plaques of complimentary restaurant reviews garnered over the years lining the walls.

Up a few stairs and we arrived at a small, nicely appointed bar area. There were five beers on tap. We chose a Sam Adams specialty red amber beer, deep n color and full of flavor. A Blue Moon, a popular Belgian-style wheat ale quietly domestically brewed by MillerCoors, has a refreshing summer brew with its orangy taste.

The central bar allowed a view of several small dining rooms, a long, narrow main dining area, a new wine-tasting room and large double “Cucina” doors, swinging both ways, leading to the kitchen.

We were shown to our table in the main dining area, evening sunshine pouring through the windows overlooking North Massey Street. New café curtains allowed intimacy and added to the bright décor and classic charm of the reconfigured space, likely a porch in a previous life.

Sabrina was our server, charming and quite a delight, a five-year veteran of the restaurant. She had the menu down cold, and was perfectly willing to retreat to the kitchen to get answers to our questions about ingredient sourcing.

Appetizers and salads, at first glance, appear to be pricey (all in the $10 to $15 range). In reality, they are substantial portions that could well serve as a light dinner any night.

Bloody Mary steamed clams ($12) consisted of a bowlful of top neck clams (a little larger than little necks, meatier and a bit firmer without being tough) steamed in a spicy tomato juice and vodka broth. Once done with the dozen tasty clams, we scooped up the broth with our spoons and mopped the plate clean with the soft Italian bread in a basket on the table.

There were mixed reactions to the stuffed mushrooms Italiano ($10) at our table.

I thought they were very good, five large caps stuffed with a mixture of sausage, sweet peppers, onions, cheese and breadcrumbs, awash with their own pomodoro sauce, shredded parm sprinkled around the perimeter.

Others at the table thought “the flavors did not marry; the final result was merely good food without great sensation.”

I hold to my position that it was a very good dish, made great by the pomodoro sauce. Pomodoro sauce means tomato sauce. But I knew from the aroma as soon as the plate hit the table, this was a special sauce, a “Sunday gravy” —tomatoes, garlic and basil simmered on the back of the stove for an entire day. A labor of love in every Italian household, and no doubt a recipe handed down through generations in the Cavallario family.

Calamari “Diablo” ($11) was a lovely departure from the routine rings. In this case, it’s calamari “steak,” the solid body of a large squid, cut into strips, thick yet tender, deep-fried with a coating to produce a crispy contrast to the interior, all providing a perfect foil for a delightfully spicy sun-dried tomato and garlic aioli, delivering the “Diablo” with real purpose and style.

The star of the first course was Panzanella Tuscan bread salad ($11), a real treat showcasing grilled yellow squash, zucchini, sweet peppers, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and crumbly blue cheese together with crusty bread, tossed with a robust balsamic vinaigrette.

It was a satisfying mélange of flavors and textures, almost ethereal in savory spice and gentle red pepper heat. The flavors were blended and carried to the palate by the bread that retained its integrity in spite of its saturated state.

Our great beginning course was followed by a salad course that came with our dinners— crisp, fresh mixed greens, tomatoes, red onion and cucumbers, perfectly dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette and grated blue cheese.

Since one of our dinners was an entrée salad, Sabrina offered instead a cup of Manhattan seafood chowder, chunks of assorted seafood in a lovely fish broth, gently tinged with essence of tomato and Italian herbs — more a bouillabaisse than a chowder, really — a tribute to the chef’s skilled hand in the kitchen.

Chicken entrees are just under $20. We chose Mediterranean-style rosemary lemon chicken ($17), a flavor bonanza — a sauce redolent with intense lemon, luscious with rosemary and garlic with hints of wine and olive oil over a bed of wilted greens. If only the chicken could have been a little more moist and tender.

Prices for seafood entrees range from $18 for crispy-coated cod to $27 for scallops Italiano or scallops in a wine and cheese sauce.

We sampled basil pesto salmon ($21), “Wild-caught salmon stuffed with Cucina-made pesto, lightly encrusted with a crisp bread topping, oven roasted and served on a bed of baby spinach.”

The breading seemed to absorb a great deal of oil either from the pan or the fish. The fish was cooked more than we would have liked, but probably our fault for not bringing that to our server’s attention in advance. The pesto was completely lost, competing with the spinach underneath.

Overall, a bit of a disappointment, but the only disappointment of the night.

There’s an entire page of Italian favorites — lasagna, manicotti, ravioli and a host of pasta choices (even gluten free) with homemade pasta sauces — ranging from $10 to $18.

Neapolitan manicotti ($17) was my pick: Cucina-made crepes filled with cheese as well as sautéed sausage, peppers and onions and doused with that great pomodoro sauce.

Again, we didn’t see eye-to-eye on this dish. Comments around the table ranged from “lackluster,” “nothing bad, nothing great” to “what a complex filling” and “this was superb!”

I go with complex and superb and give additional thumbs up to the hearty and homey pomodoro sauce, reminiscent of Mrs. Bonasera’s, my neighbor, growing up in an Italian neighborhood on Long Island.

Finally, a unique entrée tucked in with a modest selection of beef dishes — Gorgonzola sirloin salad ($20), a rich plate of flavor and fun: perfectly sautéed tenderloin tips on spring greens, dressed with a warm gorgonzola mushroom cream sauce, garnished with caramelized onions and grilled tomatoes and finished with a drizzle of aged balsamic reduction.

The tender, tasty tips would have been delicious on their own, but in tandem with the other ingredients made this a special dish.

We didn’t need dessert at this point, but when Sabrina brought out the tray displaying the kitchen’s handiwork, we folded.

Italian luscious lemon cake ($5) was a three-layer confection, an impressive walnut crust, a layer of creaminess in the center, finished off with a bright yellow lemon custard on top. Subtle flavors and creamy textures with a modest sweetness.

Cappucino cheesecake ($6.50) was one honkin’ hunk of goodness, flavorful and complex, notes of cinnamon embellished the coffee-nuanced cream cheese to the delight of all at the table.

The superior quality of chocolate hazelnut gelato ($3.95) was evident, simple unadorned pleasure, the only dessert not made right there.

Dinner for four cost $155.96 before wine, beer and tip. We did enjoy a glass of Masi Chardonnay from Italy and an Acordeon Malbec from Argentina, both fairly priced at $6 each.

There’s no drive-thru window here. Brenda and Peter Cavallario want you to come in and relax, savor time with friends and family while at the same time savoring their creative, flavorful food offerings.

Fine dining is alive and well at Cavallario’s Cucina in downtown Watertown.

You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: wsiebel@wdt.net.





Cavallario’s Cucina

133 N. Massey St.

Watertown, N.Y.

788-9744

www.cavallaros.com



Upscale, fine-dining Italian cuisine in a comfortable setting with classic charm.

HOURS: Serving dinner 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Serving lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday

APPETIZER PICKS: Bloody Mary steamed clams, stuffed mushrooms Italiano, Panzanella Tuscan bread salad

ENTRÉE PICKS: Mediterranean-style rosemary lemon chicken, Gorgonzola sirloin salad, Neapolitan manicotti

DESSERT PICKS: Italian luscious lemon cake, cappuccino cheese cake

RATING: 4 forks

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