Casa Novello has been dishing up mountainous portions of Italian-American style comfort food for years. That it used to be the neighborhood trattoria for local Italian families complete with widows in black stockings and mourning attire right out of central casting is an era long gone at this Main Street institution in Westbrook.
Today it’s a glorified pizzeria in which even some Portlanders wander in for its robust fare. Favorites besides pizza include lasagna ($15.99), meatballs and spaghetti ($13.99), chicken Parmesan ($15.99) and chicken Marsala ($17.99), which come sailing out of the kitchen with such gusto that you expect it all to be as good as it looks.
But unfortunately, the food barely passes muster even as faux Italian-American cooking. Gone are the zesty red sauces that used to frame such dishes here as baked pasta or veal cutlets.
Still, the restaurant draws big crowds at its 2-for-1 menu nights on Mondays and Tuesdays. There are a few restrictions on this cut-rate dinner deal, but it’s definitely a bargain no matter how you slice it.
We avoided the crush by going early on a recent Sunday night when it was relatively quiet. The wait staff was super friendly and greeted us warmly as though we were regulars. Even chef Cindy waved from her perch behind the half wall that separates the kitchen from the bar and long dining room.
Our waitress brought the bread basket right away and went through the ritual of preparing the dipping sauce. Stirred together are extra virgin olive oil, black pepper, dried rosemary and grated Parmesan. It was very tasty and worked to offset the mediocre bread –standard-issue Italian loaves as unremarkable as supermarket baguettes.
We were going to order a bottle of Chianti for our meal but decided on drinks instead, thinking that traditional Campari cocktails would be more enjoyable than the undistinguished Chianti on the wine list.
One guest in our party asked for a Negroni, and our waitress, who was also the bartender, drew a blank. We shared the recipe: equal parts of Campari, gin (or vodka), red vermouth and an orange slice for garnish.
After she looked high and low for that lone bottle of spirits, it turned out there was none and we settled for glasses of red wine.
The blackboard always has a few specials, though they’re often not very different from what’s on the printed menu. Pizza is a decent fallback here, and their “gourmet” thick-crust 12-inch pizzas ($14.99 to $15.99) are made with their homemade dough and very popular with regulars.
As for starters, it’s a short list. Beyond such ordinary items as chicken tenders ($7.99) and buffalo wings ($7.99), more traditional Italian specialties include calamari ($9.99) and butternut squash ravioli ($9.99), which our party of three decided to share.
The calamari was not breaded and fried, but instead limp rounds of squid were afloat in a balsamic vinegar sauce topped with greens. By stirring it all together like a composed salad the dish held some interest. But basically the calamari were soft and soggy.
The ravioli were only marginally better. A large portion of these butternut-squash-filled pockets were submerged in a soupy cream sauce. The overuse of cinnamon in the filling and sauce overwhelmed the other flavors.
We labored on hoping for better main courses. To get a true sense of the kitchen’s mettle, we opted for three entrees that generally sum up an Italian-American restaurant: a chicken-eggplant Parmesan combo ($8.99), the Bolognese over penne ($14.99) and the shrimp scampi ($18.99).
Included with the entrees is a green salad, which was the usual mix of Romaine and iceberg topped with pale red tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and other garden tidbits. Dressings are offered on the side, running the gamut from Parmesan peppercorn to Thousand Island. It’s an ordinary salad, but it was somewhat refreshing after the sappy first courses.
The entrees arrived piping hot, piled high on their serving plates. The chicken-eggplant Parmesan was crammed into a vessel no bigger than a cereal bowl without room to spread out. As such, it had different levels. The eggplant towered in a double dome alongside a fairly dry slab of chicken breast, all of which were smothered in marinara and mozzarella. There was so much sauce it seemed to dissolve the breading (if there was any) around the chicken and eggplant.
What’s more, the eggplant was so undercooked that only a steak knife could cut through it. With it came a bowl of spaghetti slathered with an acidic marinara.
The Bolognese was a halfhearted adaptation. The beauty of this sauce is how it benefits from long, slow simmering in a tomato sauce enriched with a sofrito of onions, celery and carrots that melt into the braised beef and pork. Instead, this version held ignominious crumbles of mystery meat that was probably ground beef.
The shrimp scampi ($18.99) was no better than a resuscitated store-bought frozen entrée. Served in a river of cream, which was profoundly infused with garlic, the shrimp nonetheless emerged dry and mealy.
The dessert menu had only two traditional Italian sweets (cannoli and tiramisu), and the rest read like a list at Friendly’s. The kitchen was out of tiramisu so we ordered a cannoli and the Toll House cookie pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The desserts are all homemade and bargain-priced at $4.99. The cannoli – at any price – didn’t fare well. Inside its brittle casing was a bland ricotta-cream filling without the customary touch of candied citrus or chocolate flecks.
The star of the dessert parade, if not the entire dinner, was the pie. Very sweet, fudgy and deliciously moist. We devoured it and called it a night.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: