Caffe Casta Diva


Caffe Casta Diva
227 S. 20th St.
Cash only
A few steps into the restaurant, tables are close together, but restroom is on street level
Reservations an absolute must

People are always asking me to name my favorite restaurant. I really don’t have one, but if I were to name a welcome trend, it would be the Italian bring-your-own-wine neighborhood spots. These gems have been springing up throughout the city. There’s L’angolo and Lauletta’s Grill in South Philly, La Viola near the Kimmel Center, Radicchio Cafe in Old City and Bellini Grill just steps from Walnut Street’s Restaurant Row. Mama Palma’s, in business near Fitler Square for more than five years, is still busy, as chef/owner Renato Russo turns out fine authentic Italian fare and pizza.

While walking down 20th Street just a block from Rittenhouse Square a while ago, I happened upon Caffe Casta Diva, a small, unobtrusive storefront with a big picture window. I studied the menu and was instantly intrigued. No fried calamari, no mussels, no crab cakes, no seared ahi tuna. Oh, rejoice! The majority of Italian restaurants that have a liquor license serve these and other often-uninspired and overdone dishes all over town.

My husband Edward and I brought along a fine Laurus Côtes du Rhône and eagerly awaited an early dinner. We were greeted by Stephen Vassalluzzo, the restaurant’s owner, who soon donned a white chef’s jacket and left us in the attentive care of two servers. Soup of the day was minestrone with pesto and a strip steak was available. Thank goodness, no long recitation of specials.

Caffe Casta Diva seats 28 people. Tables are set with real linen and Italian crystal.

We received a linen-lined basket of piping-hot, crisp focaccia, bathed in light olive oil with fresh rosemary, that was extraordinary.

We began dinner with an artichoke salad ($8) and a delicious eggplant dish ($7). So many places use canned or frozen artichokes that have more mush than flavor. I received two fresh, small artichokes that had been steamed and lightly grilled, then cooled. They sat next to a mound of fresh, plump roasted peppers — not little strips, but whole pepper halves that were fresh and tasty and obviously made in-house. A mound of baby greens, properly dressed in a light vinaigrette, finished the plate.

The eggplant antipasto consisted of two large, thin slices of a not-at-all-bitter young vegetable that had been lightly sautéed. Vassalluzzo took the eggplant, wrapped them around several spears of fresh asparagus and stuffed them with slightly tangy goat cheese. He topped it all off with a light, fresh-tasting tomato sauce. Here is an example of how delicious a simple dish can be when prepared with top-quality ingredients.

As we finished our antipasti, we noticed the room was filling up with regulars who arrived with wine in hand. I know a Center City restaurant (or a South Philly restaurant such as Tre Scalini) has "arrived" when people from the suburbs discover it. Two couples from Narberth sat across from us and I watched them dive into authentic Caesar salad — huge plates of whole romaine leaves bathed in homemade dressing.

As soon as I saw crepes listed among the pasta selections, I knew we had to share an order. Oh my, they tasted as if someone’s nonna made them. Crepes, called crespelle in Italian, are among my favorite foods. Two large, thin homemade pancakes were filled with creamy ricotta cheese and spinach. They were topped with fresh homemade tomato sauce. "Some Parmigiano-Reggiano?" asked our waiter as he brought a wedge of cheese and small grater to our table. This great cheese made the dish perfect.

I should say here that chef Vassalluzzo personally delivers the majority of dishes, especially the hot ones, to each patron. He wants to get to know them and wants to know what kinds of foods they like. Hot food comes to the table on very hot plates. You get the feeling you are dining in his home, for he is a fine host.

A few days before our dinner at Caffe Casta Diva, Edward and I went to dinner at another Italian restaurant, where the veal cutlet was overcooked, tasted as if it came from a box and was coated with raw bread crumbs.

I have had a craving for an honest-to-goodness veal cutlet since last summer. My cutlet at Caffe Casta Diva ($18) was perfection. A large fresh escallop of veal was pounded, dipped into seasoned crumbs and sautéed until golden brown. The veal was moist and tender (Vassalluzzo told us he shops for his meat and veal at Esposito’s). It was topped with tiny bits of fresh plum tomatoes. My plate contained creamy yet toothsome risotto, redolent with a hint of fresh rosemary, and steamed asparagus.

Edward’s veal chop ($24) was cooked medium-rare, as ordered. It was moistened with a bit of olive oil and finished with a melange of sautéed portabello and shiitake mushrooms. He also received risotto and fresh asparagus. Neither one of us had trouble finishing our dinner.

Service was excellent. We received clean flatware with each course and our waiter "crumbed" the table linen before our entrées arrived. I noticed Vassalluzzo’s ease with his patrons as he greeted each one. I wanted to find out more about him.

Vassalluzzo studied physics at Temple University, but instead decided to go into the restaurant business and opened Caffe Casta Diva last June. It was tough going for many months and he considered closing until critics lauded him and the neighborhood supported him, especially on the usually slow weeknights. Caffe Casta Diva is exactly the kind of place I want to enjoy on a Tuesday or Thursday evening.

"I never went to cooking school," Vassalluzzo said. "But I had to eat," he added with a smile.

Three tips of the toque to Caffe Casta Diva.