In general, there is rough justice in the restaurant world. Good ones survive, the goofy bad ideas flail around, offer Groupons and die grim, solitary deaths. But occasionally good people with interesting vision and laudable skills are saddled with a location so tough the day-to-day slog can verge on Sisyphean.
Because of this, it's satisfying to have a megaphone a little bigger than the average Yelper's. Right now I'm turning up the volume: Go to Casa Cosenza.
The year-old charmer is clearly a labor of love, Fabrizia Cosenza (from Naples) and her husband Giuseppe (from Rome) creating a light, airy space that reads like someone's home, someone who really, really likes tables and chairs. One wall is a built-in bookshelf with pretty tchotchkes, the bartop is inlaid with blue and white hand-painted Italian tile, usually with a glass cake dome and fresh flowers arrayed just so.
Fabrizia is the chef, so you don't see much of her. She's the pretty one in the floppy black chef's hat. Giuseppe and a small band of earnest young folks man the front of the house. Most nights, by the time dinner rolls around the pasta is already made, but you can see what earlier in the day transpired: A bright red mixer with a pasta attachment sits silent, beside it rows of pale yellow linguine draped over wooden dowels.
But man, that location. It's in a ho-hum strip mall with a front entrance that could be a marriage counselor or CPA's office.
What is interesting about Casa Cosenza's menu is that much of it is familiar and exotic at once. Yes, there are housemade mozzarella balls, but these little guys are battered and fried and paired with curried lentils ($11). An interesting contrast of textures and complementary flavors. Curry crops up again in the not-so-classic Roman pasta e fagioli ($14, but they seemed happy to give us a smaller portion for half of that), a sincerely homemade-tasting soup with a rich broth and a crowd of beans, pasta and veggies enriched with salty-nutty pecorino.
Risotto, again, subverts expectation deliciously, a spin on a classic Roman cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) with the added nuance of sesame ($19) and — something you almost never see in Italian restaurants in the U.S. — a sartu di riso ($16), a timbale of rice creamier than a pilaf and not as creamy as risotto, this one studded with tomato and peas and lush with provolone.
My favorite dish was a plate of housemade linguine, not too much of it and swirled just so, each strand like something out of Oz with traditional pesto (clearly made in-house and recently, the basil heady, the pine nuts imparting their caramelized fragrance), and wedges of crisply fried baby artichoke dotting the plate ($15). Not complicated, but fresh and exacting. The same held true for a roasted chicken cacciatora ($18), the herb-flecked and burnished-skin bird pieces amped up with chopped tomato, capers, olives and potato. I most frequently see this dish as a stewier braise, but the flavors here were hearty and appealing.
Not everything is perfect at Casa Cosenza. They make their own bread. As laudable as that is, the bread sticks on two visits were stale, the sliced sandwich-style bread somewhat dry. And when the large dining room is not filled with people and food smells, an aggressive air freshener doesn't put you in the mood to chow. I'm willing to ignore both of those quibbles in favor of praising the tiny, well-priced all-Italian wine list and a dessert lineup that includes something you never see in these parts: Neapolitan baba. The Casa Cosenza version reads more like a rum-soaked panettone (in Naples these rum cakes are often little mushroom shapes), paired with a soft whipped cream and small chunks of fresh strawberry.
What the Cosenzas are doing feels very personal, their style warm and informal, their prices in keeping with other restaurants in their category. Will it be enough to overcome a location that seems challenging? There's a good Italian expression: Magari! It means, "Let's hope!"
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.