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By Ron Churchill

For Italian cuisine — the kind you almost have to marvel at — it doesn’t get any better than Casa Antica Ristorante.

Once inside, you feel like you stepped into an old, marvelous home turned restaurant in sunny Italy.

Crisp white tablecloths, a friendly family atmosphere, and genuinely good Italian food: authentic, savory, delicious. Ample portions, delicately seasoned, presented beautifully but with no pretension.

This is good food, healthy and hearty, with a nice, clean, relaxing atmosphere.
Casa Antica

It’s relaxing just to be here. There may be no better place to spend an evening, dining on rice balls or sea bass or plain old, simple, comforting spaghetti and meatballs, with a sauce so fine and delicately sweet it reminds one at once why tomato and semolina, olive oil, herbs and the right pinch of spices work so wonderfully together to nourish and tempt the palate.

Casa Antica is a place where you can take your whole family, your date, your wife, your friends, business acquaintances, in a lovely quiet setting in beautiful historic Lewiston.

It is an experience just to go there.

The family-owned business was started by Angela Bellanca in 2006, and it has taken off — a genuine Lewiston success story.

Her father, Jack Soldano, and her brother, Calogero Soldano, are the chefs that make the cozy restaurant at 490 Center St. a culinary experience.

“Basically, we’re family oriented,” Jack Soldano explained. “Whoever comes in here, for even an hour, they feel the family atmosphere. We treat them like family. And our customers, they treat us back like family.”

The experience, as I and my colleague Michelle came into the restaurant, was one where we were greeted warmly, and although they were busy, I noticed that we and other arriving customers were seated right away.

There was no pretension, but rather the immediate feeling that we were welcome, in that warm, hospitable Italian way that made it feel we were in an Italian home of sophistication and elegance, but warm and welcome nonetheless.

OK, said simply, like we were family.

As we gave our orders, we were given free appetizers, including little pizzas.

“People know the food is going to be fresh,” said the elder Mr. Soldano. “We don’t get it out of the freezer and microwave it. It’s all fresh.”
And it was.

Studying the menu and sampling the fare, it seems the restaurant provides cuisine from all over Italy.

“We do Northern Italian cuisine, Southern Italian cuisine. We do a bit of everything. A lot of our food is homemade.” Jack said.
Officially, what would you call the wonderful blend of the best of all Italian foods, old and new recipes, prepared by chefs who not only understand the art of cooking, but care to make it the best it can be?

It’s “traditional, new-age Italian cuisine.”

Coming out of his spotless kitchen, Jack pours us coffee made from a state-of-the-art coffee brewer, and then comes to our table for a moment to talk.
The summers are nice here at the outside patio, when the sun is setting and day turns to dusk. There is a magical quality in this quiet pleasure garden in the village of Lewiston, once designated by President Jimmy Carter as the most historic square mile in the United States.

“We’re right on Center Street, and there’s always something exciting going on in summer,” Mr. Soldano said.

Sure there is. There is Artpark, the Peach Festival, the parade, the Jazz Festival — always something going on. Always interesting people and old architecture, stately trees and the nearby Niagara River.

And when your eyes are done feasting on the sights, and you are hungry for real Italian food — for fine taste, excellent quality, ample quantity and affordable price — it so happens, for my vote, it is right here.

As I watched customers enter, I observed they were not only locals. I learned many were from Canada, shoppers who came to take advantage of the parity of the U.S. and Canadian dollar who found a good place to dine when they had worked up an appetite after the strenuous task of shopping all day.
Several had come all the way from the Fashion Outlet Mall several miles away and en route had to pass many restaurants.

I had to wonder if shopping alone was their reason for crossing the bridge into the United States, and if an ample part of the fun was not dining at Casa Antica after they went shopping.

It was a joyous place, I observed.

I also noticed there were people from Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania, as the license plates proved.

Sea bass was popular. Indeed, they were literally swimming out to hungry customers. Along with a gorgeous salad — nearly everybody had some — with, and I can attest to this, a dressing that lit up my taste buds and danced on my tongue, created, I later learned, by Jack’s son, Calogero. It is the Casa Antica house dressing. I fell in love with it and suggested they bottle it and put it on the market.

I noticed a number of people relaxing, enjoying wine at the bar, selecting from a list of good, choice and affordable wines by the glass or bottle. Merlot seemed to be the favorite.

Calogero says serving the customers at Casa Antica, the fine mix of patrons — regulars, locals and tourists — are his passion.

“My father was raised up in the restaurant business, and so was I,” he said, and told us how as a child he would spend virtually all his available hours in the restaurant, and how he always knew what he wanted to be in life, and how he went to culinary school and now works with his father in the kitchen almost every night.
His whole life, like his father’s, has been spent in a restaurant, born for this work and excelling at it.

Jack comes back with huge plates of Italian risotto and grilled meats, cooked painfully slowly to keep in the flavor, marinated just perfectly. It was moist and savory, and indeed exquisite.

He sat down with us for a minute and took a sip of coffee. The smell of the roast was as good as the taste.
“You’ve got to be here to experience it,” he said.

He’s right.

As I watched customers leave — and perhaps this is the most telling tale of all — I noticed that everyone took food home.

So did I.

Casa Antica is open Tuesday through Sunday during the spring, fall and winter, and seven days a week in the summer. Doors open at 5 p.m.

(E-mail Ron Churchill at ronchurchill@yahoo.com.)

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 1 2012