Thinly sliced beef filet mignon served with a grain mustard dressing and warm mushroom salad

Thinly sliced beef filet mignon served with a grain mustard dressing and warm mushroom salad

Casa Ado offers an authentic culinary experience just steps from the beach

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

Most people strolling down Washington Boulevard to the beach probably don’t notice the gargoyles.

The leering bat head on the second story of Casa Ado is at least two feet wide, and there are several smaller cousins above the pillars on the first floor. Perhaps the strangeness of these medieval monsters makes them invisible — your brain tells you that you couldn’t have seen that, so you don’t.

Casa Ado looks like it was uprooted from some village in Northern Italy and dropped in Marina del Rey intact, with the menu and some of the staff coming along for the ride; the fellow who welcomed us at the door had both the accent and the graciousness of an Italian professional.

We asked for a table with some light so we could read the menu — it’s dim in here, with much of the light provided by candles, and you might do as people at a neighboring table did and deploy your cell phone as a flashlight.

You’ll want to spend time with this menu.

Onion marmalade bruschetta with pancetta in a dressing made with saba, the grape concentrate that tastes like balsamic vinegar?

Gnocchi with arugula, tomatoes and roasted almonds in spicy olive oil?

Prepare to mull over some intriguing combinations, all authentically Italian in spirit. There’s plenty of Cal-Ital in the neighborhood, but not at this address.

The wine list is more cosmopolitan, with a California sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir, but the Barolos, Barbarescos and other fine Italian bottles are the main attraction for those who like to match wines with their cuisines of origin.

After conferring with our server, we decided to start with grilled calamari over a bed of spicy chard and a special salad of watercress with heart of palm, pecorino Romano cheese and toasted almonds in a mild vinaigrette. If the watercress season were longer I’d say this should be a permanent menu item, because it was delicious. The cress had a gently sharp flavor that reminds you it’s a cousin to mustard and arugula, and it made a fine contrast with the rich hearts of palm, nuts and smooth pecorino. The dressing was subtle, just enough to bind the other elements with a whiff of herbs and touch of vinegar.

My wife sighed quietly when I ordered the squid with chard because it was predictable — I like both of these ingredients, while she is generally less enthusiastic about them. She tasted the dish anyway and looked visibly startled, then reached for more. The peppery chard and slightly salty grilled calamari were perfect together. I know many who enjoy fried calamari but never order it grilled, and I may send them here to expand their palates.

Our server had suggested a California Lake Country sauvignon blanc and an Italian Greco di Tufo, warning us that some people find the latter a bit too dry. It was dry and mineral-tasting compared to most New World wines but a delicious companion to the seafood, though slightly less so with the salad. The sweeter, fuller California wine went well with both but I found it less interesting.

I toyed with the idea of ordering the beet noodles with chicken marsala ragu, but on our server’s advice chose the pappardelle with sausage and radicchio in gorgonzola cheese sauce and a main course of chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms and cannellini beans “ucceletto style.” After I got home I looked up this preparation and found that it means “cooked bird style,” which implies that there is some Italian recipe for cooking a bird in sage and tomato sauce. It certainly worked nicely with the beans, and they provided a nice counterpoint to the medallions of chicken with mushrooms. I might have liked just a bit more mushroom in the dish, because while the flavors were very well matched, a bit more fungus funk would have made it even better.

There was no such caveat with the pasta, because the balance couldn’t have been better. Radicchio has a naturally bitter flavor, gorgonzola a funky sharpness, and either one can dominate a dish when out of proportion. Here they elegantly complemented the meat, house-made noodles and spices.

The portions were Italian rather than American, a good meal but not excessive, so we were satisfied but not full by the time we finished our courses. The glasses of red wine — both Italian this time, a super-Tuscan and a primitivo — contributed to our sense of well-being.

We ordered a dessert that involved three chocolates, a crisp crust topped by rich cream with a dusting of dark cocoa, and wished for a proper amaro to follow. The one remarkable failing at Casa Ado is that they have a full bar but none of the Italian bitters traditionally quaffed at the end of a meal. The cocktail offerings are odd, too. Do the people who order authentic Italian meals really prefer a mojito or margarita to a negroni, cardinale or Americano? We asked the manager when he came by, and he offered a shot of good grappa on the house to go with our dessert, which we happily accepted. The dessert was delicious, and so rich that we were glad we had only ordered one to split.

High style by the beach isn’t cheap. Our dinner for two with four glasses of wine ran $136, but the experience was well worth it. As we went for a postprandial walk on the pier we were still talking about the marvelous meal we had just enjoyed.

Casa Ado is an extraordinary slice of Italy. If you are looking for such an authentic experience in a beachside setting, this restaurant has few competitors and no equals.

Casa Ado, 12 W. Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey (310) 577-2589 casaado.com

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