I’d never actually noticed Casanova, but I’d heard an awful lot about it. Several fellow food bloggers have raved about it in the past and when I met the guys from La Galleria, they said it was their favourite Italian restaurant in Cardiff, so I really wanted to give it a try – and we managed to get a booking for last Saturday.
It’s an unassuming little place, tucked away in Quay Street, with the windows frosted so you can’t see in or out. Inside, it’s similarly modest – a small downstairs dining area and an even smaller one upstairs, with probably only about 15 or 20 tables in total. From the reviews I’d already read, I knew it was a small, family-run restaurant serving authentic Italian dishes – and I was looking forward to my meal.
The menu is a simple a la carte, with standard prices across the board – £14 for one course, £18 for two and £23 for three courses. Each course has around five or six options. From looking at the website, it seems as if they change the menu with the seasons.
To start, we decided to share some antipasti, which was a very simple selection of meats and cheeses served with bread and olive oil and balsamic to dip. Antipasti like this may be simple, but if you skimp on the quality of the selection on offer, it shows. Not so here: a delicious selection from Tuscany and Calabria, which according to the menu had been sourced from specially selected small farms. The meats were all delicious, especially a thick slice of pork with a generous layer of fat surrounding it, and I loved the chunks of cheese – one of which I think was parmigiano (all too rarely served like this as it’s normally grated), the other I’m not sure but it was deliciously sharp and tasty. A great start to our meal, with quality ingredients clearly the order of the day.
At this point, we did start to worry a little when we overheard a conversation between one of the waiting staff and the table next to us, who were obviously regular diners at Casanova – a good sign. Not such a good sign was the fact that they were asking whether the usual chef was on duty, as their meal, although good, had not been as good as it usually was. The waitress confirmed that the head chef was in fact away for three weeks, getting married in Italy (so we’ll let him off!) and that the deputy was doing his best, but clearly no one can cook like the head chef. We were a little concerned, but decided to wait and judge for ourselves as to whether it was as good a meal as we’d been led to believe it would be!
My main course was Maiale, which translates (not literally) into pork three ways: belly, homemade sausage, and braised ham hock cake. I’d heard great things about the pork belly, so this swung my decision. I also liked the sound of the ham hock cake, but am not a big fan of sausages, so fully expected that to be the part I enjoyed least, but as it turned out, I had it all the wrong way round! The sausage was delicious – totally meaty and very well seasoned, and the skin was undetectable once you put it in your mouth (one of the things that puts me off sausages is the texture of the skin). The pork belly was good, but not the best I’ve ever had – it didn’t have the crispy layer on top that makes pork belly really good for me, nor did it have a clear distinction between the meaty part and the layer of fat, and unfortunately the piece I had had several chunks of cartilage in it, which put me off a bit too. It was good, but not as good as I’d hoped. The ham hock cake, however, was actually rather unpleasant. I think it was a polenta cake, but it was bad polenta, really watery – in fact, it just tasted of water and had a very unpleasant consistency. I ended up leaving most of it, which was a shame, as it could have been a nice accompaniment if it had been firm polenta with tasty chunks of ham, rather than sloppy and tasteless.
The dish was served with a sort of sour coleslaw and an apple puree. Both were nice, but there wasn’t enough of either to balance what was a very, very hefty portion of meat. Perhaps had the polenta been more edible, this would have done the balancing job, but as it was I felt there was way too much meat on my plate. I’ve had smaller pieces of pork belly served on their own as a main dish, without two other pieces of meat alongside. (I should mention at this point that I did toy with a Carry On-esque title for this blog post, referencing the world’s greatest lover and an overdose of pork, but I decided against it – that would just be childish, now wouldn’t it?!)
Mr W’s main, on the other hand, was a triumph. He chose Garganelli, a dish of traditional egg pasta with peas and parma ham, with a white wine and cream sauce, topped with truffle oil. It was absolutely delicious, the sweet peas and salty ham worked divinely with the cream and the pasta to create a fresh-tasting dish that was totally authentic and would seem perfectly at home in a rustic restaurant in the heart of Italy. Fortunately, this was a gargantuan portion (I wonder if there’s a hint in the name!), so there was plenty for me to pick at once I’d given up on my pork! If we return, I’m definitely having the pasta – I ended up wishing I’d ordered the other pasta dish that was on offer, a Ragu. Next time…
We ended up getting into conversation with the table on the other side of us at this point (we’re a chatty pair!) One half of their table had also had the pork and been similarly turned off by the ham hock cake, so we compared notes on that. They were tucking into a dessert by this point and recommended that we do the same, so we ordered a chocolate torta with a salted caramel base.
The torta was served simply – no ice cream or anything else on the side, and although it was extremely rich, it didn’t actually need an accompaniment. It probably also didn’t really need copious criss-crossing of chocolate sauce filling up the empty plate space either, but this didn’t interfere with the taste of the dessert! The chocolate was rich and smooth, the base thin and crisp, and the salted caramel layer added an extra dimension. Really, really good.
The service was excellent all night – a small and friendly team who seemed to work well together and certainly looked after us exceptionally well. We had a chat (see a pattern emerging?!) with a couple of them after our meal, and they talked about the family business, confirmed that the chef was away, but that we should come back when he’s back in situ, and just generally made our experience all that more personal.
Despite my disappointment with the pork dish, I still loved Casanova. Everything else that we ate was excellent, especially Mr W’s pasta dish, so it still gets four stars from me for food (if the pork had been as good as everything else it would have easily been a five). The atmosphere and service were great, and it’s about as authentic Italian as you’ll get without actually getting on a plane – certainly the most authentic Italian food I’ve had in Cardiff, and a million miles away from the proliferation of Italian-themed chains. It might disappoint people who expect a standard Italian menu featuring pizza, carbonara, Bolognese, lasagne and the usual staples, but if you fancy trying something authentic in an intimate atmosphere, then I’d recommend Casanova. I like the fact it’s small, and a hidden gem, away from the madding crowds, that not everyone knows about, but clearly enough people do to keep it popular and busy with regulars and discerning new diners alike.
We’ll be returning when the chef is back – and next time, I’m having the pasta!
Food: **** Service: **** Ambience: ****
Casanova, 13 Quay Street, Cardiff CF10 1EA