The usual setup at most Italian restaurants on Long Island is an Italian-American owner backed up by a kitchen staff that largely comprises Latino cooks.
But at Casa di Fratelli in Westbury, there’s a variation taking place that fuels the debate: Do you have to be born into a cuisine or just need the work ethic to learn it?
Located on a busy stretch of Old Country Road (in what used to be Ayhan’s Shish Kebab), Casa di Fratelli is the rare example of a Latino-owned Italian-American restaurant, where three close-knit brothers from El Salvador are proving that the surest path to success in Long Island’s dining scene runs through an Italian kitchen.
In all, six Valle brothers emigrated from San Salvador to New York and all but one did turns as dishwashers at La Ginestra, one of Glen Cove’s most venerable Italian restaurants, before working their way up the kitchen brigade.
Giovanni, Carlos and Antonio Valle opened Casa di Fratelli in January. Two of them had worked at Milito’s, the 2-year-old Italian restaurant in Huntington Station that’s run by two more brothers, Emilio, the owner, and Joel. Antonio had been working as a private chef. (A sixth brother, Moris, is the executive chef at Cassano in Hauppauge, which opened just last week.)
Casa di Fratelli shows that cooking al dente pasta, choosing more than 60 food-friendly wines, mostly from Italy and California (highlights include a fruity Sensi Testardo Sangiovese Cabernet from Tuscany and a slightly bolder Ferrari-Carano Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley), and making sure customers enjoy themselves are skills that can be learned.
The welcoming environment has a clean, minimalist look — wide wood-plank floors, walls in soft yellows and browns, all accentuated by soft recessed lighting — and a playlist that leans heavily on Frank Sinatra.
The dining room is Giovanni’s domain, and he can be found happily obliging diners who want a photo, commending them for ordering so much food and congratulating them on finishing more than he expected.
The menu has plenty of the classics rounded out with dishes the brothers have cataloged along the way, and specials that occasionally push past American-Italian into more fanciful territory.
The brothers’ signature baby artichokes, a recipe learned at La Ginestra, are steamed, then sauteed in olive oil with crisp roasted garlic and finished with basil and Parmesan. They pair well with plump baked clams stuffed with a garlic-laced breadcrumb mix and finished with a white-wine sauce. A hearty bowl of lentil soup is punched up with ribbons of bitter escarole.
But shrimp and avocado salad, a mainstay on the specials menu, is weakened by lackluster tomatoes. Lamb skewers are served imaginatively — protruding like porcupine quills from a halved lemon — but the meat itself is somehow both gamy and bland.
Among the 10 pasta dishes is a well-composed cavatelli forestiera in which curled shells, sauteed mushrooms, shallots and prosciutto are all melded creamily with Marsala wine and mascarpone. Too bad the pappardelle, the lone noodle made in house, was too thick and suffered from a “Siciliana sauce” of tomato, diced eggplant and ricotta that veered toward gloppy.
The tomato sauce was much cleaner, and it graced tender cutlets of breaded chicken Parmesan whose mozzarella topping was admirably restrained. Another classic, fillets of delicate sole Francese, were well-bronzed before getting their bath of white wine, lemon and butter sauce. Casa di Fratelli serves two veal chops, one thick-cut and grilled, the other pounded into a paillard and partially hidden by a chopped salad.
If it’s on the specials menu, order pollo montebianco, a playful take on what literally translates to “white mountain” in Italian: Wilted spinach (the forest) is layered with a sauteed chicken breast (the mountain), topped with shrimp (no explanation) and capped with mozzarella (the snow) before the entire dish is finished in a broiler.
The dessert menu sticks to the standards. Here you can’t go wrong with the tiramisu or the napoleon.
The Valles are not remaking American-Italian, but they have found their place in it.