Caffé Casta Diva

227 S. 20th Street
(215) 496-9677

Stephen Vassalluzzo remains the handsomest young chef in center city. His trattoria is now looking great as well.

Two summer months of contractors have upgraded the seating capacity from twenty-five to sixty. Tables are richly varnished woods, each lit by a single low candle. A set of glass salt and pepper shakers add garnish. These condiment holders have the heft of paperweights. Cushy cross-hatched chairs mold to your back and backside. The widened dining areas now have opaquely gray walls; omnipresent overhead recessed lights throw spots of opalescent violet and greenery upon them. Finally, an unusual saddle-colored shell chandelier hangs from the restaurant’s ceiling at its middle. The effect is one of a conceptual combination including art deco and modern retro.

Huge storefront windows are as large as home-movie theater screens, and the pedestrians along 20th Street are the cast of characters. Notwithstanding the recent amendment of furniture, fixtures and equipment, once the cloth-covered wooden lightship basket of hot breads (homemade focaccia rolls, olive-oiled to a faultless gleam) arrives, all attention is focused on your fork-hand’s commensal relationship with your mouth.

You should not miss these Appetizers:  Baby Arugula, House Dried Tomatoes, Ricotta Salata Cheese ($9), or Caesar Salad with Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese ($8). The former is an erect positioning of rectangular ricotta cheese pieces, thinly sliced, guarding a fortress of arugula co-mingling above subtlety hidden smokey dried tomatoes. The ricotta languishes upon your tongue, waiting for you to coat its sharpness with a brandish of well-oiled baby arugula and rich tomatoes. The mixture, as you chew, becomes marbleized and magniloquent, because swallowing causes a frenetic frisson as your vocal chords attempt, with eventual success, to groan.

The Caesar Salad adds quantities of curved and rolled shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano white cheese grabbing like fingers at huge toasted croutons, white anchovies and chopped Romaine lettuce leaves. The large white circular plate which “Caesar” occupies is so redolent of garlic, that each bite soaks your tongue and larynx into verbalizing out loud, “Et Tu Brute!”

The menu changes often, from night to night. No longer is there a Diva’s four page Menu. A legal pad sized paper currently advises of that evening’s selections. It includes (on Tuesdays through Thursdays) a bargain “Three Course Recession Special” for $30 per person. Needless to say, all the aforementioned sixty seats are taken. The asterixed Recession choices change daily, and often include, for example, Roasted Free Range Frenched Chicken Breast (alone $21). I cannot fully describe this most moist version of poultry which is so blithesome and lenitive upon the palate. The glistening breast and gleaming drumstick of the bird is drenched in succulence. Perfectly steamed haricots verts and puffy truffle mashed potatoes surround the chicken’s parts in stunning silence.

Another frequent Recession repast is Jumbo Seared Diver Sea Scallops (alone $23). This platter consists of three enormously thick whole dry sea scallops crisped on top to a golden hue. They form a triangle around a mound of broccoli rabe, and all bathe in an emerald fennel sauce. The mollusks must be cut in thirds, simply to fit between one’s lips. The “rabe”ery cannot wait to be held up, as your utensil is swiped forward by your own intense inhaling. Eyes always close instinctively so that nothing visual disturbs the tasks of your taste buds.

I will not mention the pasta entrées, like pappardelle which is silken and slippery, best eaten in strands rolled with fork upon soupspoon. Nor the house-made gnocchi reveling in so much Gorgonzola light cream sauce that your cheeks bulge profusely. Gulping and slurping are inevitable, but not before you are spiking and thrusting another fork-full of ricotta cheese gnocchi upward and inward.

Non-recession menu items include the supremely succulent Veal Chop ($28) which is duly marinated with flavors of marsala-soaked mushrooms. Prepared medium rare, the thick filet-on-bone is darkly dense. “Oozes profusely” is too subtle a phrase to describe the plethora of juices which spurt when your knife slashes the veal’s girth. The diluvial liquids make the surrounding porcini swim to safety, to be nabbed in multilateral acts of mercy, and carried to your waiting mouth.

The Grilled New York Strip Steak ($28) is seared to carmalization. It quivers when pushed, not knowing that you’re simply looking for a better cutting angle. The meat is accompanied by sweet sautéed onions and is as pink as the face of a juror caught napping.

CCD’s tiramisu dessert is legendary. Darkly colored ladyfinger cakes are sprayed by a shower of espresso and liqueur to form a sandwich around solidly sweet mascarpone cheese, then crusted by deep cocoa flavoring powder. Share with someone who’s ordered a cannoli outwardly swollen by chocolate dimples.


Copyright 2008 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back