First Bite: Il Casale

Most of Chowder’s resident foodies are big fans of chef and Best of Boston 2008 winner Dante de Magistris. But we can’t quite bring ourselves to frequent his Cambridge restaurant, Dante, as often as we’d like. It’s not exactly the kind of place you’d pop in for an impromptu, casual meal the way you would the Franklin Cafe or the Butcher Shop. (A meatball-cooking contest on the patio, however, gets us across the river every time).

So when we first heard that Dante, along with brothers Damian and Filippo de Magistris, was opening a more casual boîte in his hometown of Belmont, we were sure he’d hit a sweet spot. Our suspicions have been confirmed: Last week, on one of Il Casale‘s first official nights open, the vacant firehouse-turned-neighborhood restaurant was packed with revelers. Squeezing into a corner booth for a preview, we opted for a family-style dinner (a.k.a The Ferrari) of the chef’s favorites.

First up was fresh burrata, a squishy, milky mouthful of cheese pleasantly contrasted by the crunch of toasted pistachios sprinkled on top. Two kinds of meatballs—traditional beef and maiale (pork)—were familiar and satisfying, as were the three varieties of crisp bruschetta (topped with tomato, pickled red peppers, and chicken livers, respectively). On the more delicate side were melt-in-your-mouth beef carpaccio with creamy gorgonzola sauce, pork tonnato with capers and a tuna-based sauce, and a primi portion of tender gnocchi with porcini cream, peas, and fava beans.

The menu’s hands-down star, however, is a rustic dish called minestra, and it’s the definition of homestyle cooking: a wedge of crusty-on-the-outside, skillet-charred corn pizzette topped with braised escarole abd dandelions, then doused in the greens’ broth (a pig’s foot-enriched liquid that soaks into the corn cake and renders it magnificent). It’s the kind of dish you want when you’re sick, sad, or lonely, and it puts most cheese-slathered “comfort food” to shame. Ditto the tiramisu, which is far from fussy, big enough to share, and arrives in a ceramic crock. What’s more, almost everything on the menu is under 20 bucks.

In other words: Sorry, Cambridge. It looks like we’ll be spending a lot more time in Belmont.

Il Casale, 50 Leonard St., Belmont, 617-209-4942,