Mon-Thu from noon to midnight. Sat. noon to 1 a.m. Sun from 4 p.m. to midnight. Licensed. Major credit cards. 274-4351
A Venus de Milo gazes from an ornate floral-themed wall niche at tuxedoed waiters bustling with white napkins draped on forearms; a raucous crowd of regulars at the bar boozily taunt the barman and the smell of a thousand garlic cloves mixes with the vague scent of aftershave.
It must be Friday night in Little Italy and this must be Casa Napoli. This Montreal fixturenot Casa Na-POLI but Casa NA-poli--has one foot firmly in the seventies, when Italian food was the fusion cuisine of North America, and tongue firmly in cheek when it comes to perpetuating the many cliches that are associated with those beloved but slightly musty old times. All that's missing is the strolling violin playerbut he could have been on a cigarette break.
One is pleasantly surprised, however, to find that in Casa Napoli's case, old-fashioned need not be a synonym for mediocre. This restaurant obviously holds pride of place among the locals. You won't find sushi mixing with agnolotti here, but the people who come here don't want adventure, they want predictability, familiarity and friendliness. This is where you should take Aunt Mildred when she murmurs "I've only been in Montreal two hours and I have a sudden hankering for Gamberoni Fra Diavolo . . ."
The waiters, a large pack of them at the beginning of the meal, are quick with the amusing anecdotes and bon mots and delight in ladeling out large doses of "old country"-type charm. A comment on the origin of the word "puttanesca" elicited a story about Roman train stations and hungry harlots.
The menu is of a fair size and holds no surpriseswhich is as it should be. Before-dinner treats include the aforementioned shrimp in a piquant tomato-sauced pasta, salads with endive boats and dandelion-spiked greens, cold seafood mixed-plates with smoked salmon and large, succulent cocktail shrimp and an absolutely heavenly focaccia soaked in olive oil and gorgonzola with lashings of spicy sundried tomato. A dinner could be reasonably predicated on this appetizer alone.
One of our party ordered the Aragosta Fra Diavolo (that Diavolo is never Fra away here), a whole lobster in spicy tomato sauce with pasta. In a somewhat unnerving display, the live animal was brought out for approval before the coup de grâce.
A Pennine alla Arabbiata (spicy tube pasta), while a mite salty, was also powerfully and appropriately spiced with heaps of garlic and peppers. I'm glad I didn't do my usual of asking for "extra-spicy"here it was totally unnecessary.
There is a selection of risottos and pastas as well as the vitellos and volatilis; everything you'd expect to find in a good Italian place at a fairly decent price. The wine selection is, predictably, Italian, with many selections in the $30-price range. A Regaliali from Sicily ($32.50) was round and earthy and tasted of the hills.
Dessert was also predictable, with the usual chocolate mousses and tiramisus, but they were assembled with loving care and elaborate decoration, so that no bite went unappreciated. Espresso was good and a sweet anisette was a perfect close to a satisfying evening. The only slight imperfection was a seeming reluctance to pick up the check. Perhaps they were all out back smoking with the violin player.
Reviewed by Nick Robinson