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Friday, February 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dining Deals

Casa d'Italia serves up lots of red sauce and Ol' Blue Eyes

Special to The Seattle Times

Casa d'Italia


2615 N.E. 65th St., Seattle, 206-525-7747

Italian

Recommended

$$

Hours: 4-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

No obstacles to access / V, MC / beer and wine.

If Casa d'Italia didn't exist, you'd have to invent it, or at least import it from Brooklyn. This Ravenna favorite actually has an Italian chef who sings along with Frank Sinatra. A postcard on the fridge reads, "It's Frank's world — we just live in it."

You couldn't get more Italian-American than this place without bringing back the Chairman himself. Casa d'Italia, whose sign features a pair of tomatoes, began as a market and still sells dried pasta, olive oil, wine and other Italian imports.

In addition to sit-down dinners, Casa d'Italia offers a variety of hot and cold sandwiches, the cold subs named after Sinatra (salami, mozzarella, oregano) and other famous Italians and Italian Americans, such as Joe Pesci (tuna, lettuce, tomato — "pesce" is Italian for "fish," get it?), Luciano Pavarotti (capocollo, arugula, mozzarella, hot peppers) and Sophia Loren (roasted vegetables, mozzarella, pesto).

Whenever I see a sandwich roster like that, I wonder a) why is it always sandwiches that get named after people? And b) do they check with the people to make sure they like the sandwiches? What if spicy food makes Pavarotti's voice crack?

I took an excellent (nameless) hot Italian sausage and pepper sandwich ($7.75) to go. The Casa really gets sandwich bread: Their loaves (Macrina Bakery's Giuseppe loaf) have a nice crusty exterior but a soft crumb that doesn't interfere with the sandwich filling.

Aside from sandwiches, the regular menu sticks to antipasti and pasta classics such as pasta with homemade meatballs ($11.50) and aglio olio ($9, or $10 with anchovies). The menu pastas are made with the pasta shape of the day, ranging from spaghetti to penne to orecchiete.

A handwritten board lists six to eight daily pasta, vegetarian and meat specials, which might include penne with four cheeses, maiale (pork) marsala with porcini cream sauce, or lamb shank Milanese with risotto.

The restaurant recently started featuring wild-game specials on weekends; call for details.

One of the best features of Casa d'Italia is its patio, a welcoming space behind the dining room (you'll go through it on the way to the restroom, which is also well-appointed). It's heated in winter, but I expect the patio comes into its own when the sun comes out.

Service is excellent — waiters (one or two can handle the whole place) know the menu, the specials and the wine list, and water glasses stay full.

I hope it won't offend fans of either restaurant if I say that Casa

d'Italia is the type of place that Buca di Beppo emulates: huge portions of tomato-sauced pastas and meats in an upbeat atmosphere.

But Casa d'Italia turns down the kitsch factor and focuses on the food. The caprese salad ($9), for example, uses fresh tomatoes only in season. This time of year, it's sun-dried tomatoes. That's emblematic of the restaurant's approach: excess, you bet (did I mention the loud Sinatra soundtrack?), but restraint where it counts.

Check please

Antipasto misto (piccolo): A flavorful mix of artichoke hearts, olives, salami and cheeses, most with the tang of vinegar and roundness of extra-virgin olive oil. If this is the piccolo, the grande must be the size of a tuba.

Gnocchi Genovese: Firm potato gnocchi swim in a lagoon of mixed-meat tomato sauce. Though it's a hearty portion, it's not as overwhelming as it looks — there's more sauce than gnocchi.

Ravioli affumicata: Round ravioli, stuffed with smoked mozzarella and served in a cream sauce. Rich and comforting.

Vanilla ice cream with Italian amarena cherries: Amarenas are Italian black cherries; preserved in syrup, they are the Italian equivalent of maraschino cherries. Not as sweet as their bright-red counterpart, amarenas and their syrup make a great ice cream topping.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Antipasto misto $8.75

Gnocchi Genovese $13.50

Ravioli affumicata $12.50

Vanilla ice cream with Italian amarena cherries $5.50

Total $40.25

Matthew Amster-Burton: mamster@mamster.net

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