You Can Count on This Little Italy Mainstay—Especially This Time of Year
Among Little Italy’s restaurants, Caesar’s Den remains an elusive entity. Neither as all-purpose family-friendly as Sabatino’s or Chiappareilli’s, nor as plushly serious as Da Mimmo or La Scala, good old Caesar’s Den occupies the eating mind as a reliable role-player, never quite achieving star billing. It’s the restaurant equivalent of Donald Sutherland, the perennial “actor’s actor.”
A couple I know has been praising Caesar’s Den to me, and I went with them on a recent rainy evening. Only a few other parties were gathered in the pleasantly plush-carpeted, dimly lit dining rooms. These rooms feel well tended and cared for—candles and fresh flowers on white tablecloths, pretty paintings on beige walls. It looks like an Italian restaurant, and if it pulls up short at being outright romantic, it compensates with a reassuring sobriety.
The menu is traditional Neapolitan, with an emphasis on fresh pastas and simple preparations of veal, chicken, and seafood, mostly jumbo shrimp. Little in the way of culinary daring is available—the house special is a massive 20-ounce veal chop—and in its stead is an emphasis on good ingredients and careful execution that succeeds as being modest. Honest food, if you like. And winter is an especially favorable season for the food of Caesar’s Den. The kitchen appreciates the sharp, dark, bitter, and acidic flavors of autumn, and the menu is liberally sprinkled with capers, arugula, olives, Gorgonzola, and prosciutto di Parma.
Polenta con calamari ($9.95) is nothing but ringlets of tenderly grilled sautéed calamari tossed with tomatoes over three slices of polenta, but the tomatoes are gorgeously flavor-bursting and smoky San Marzanos and the polenta is light and creamy. A second appetizer, the spiedino alla romano ($8), betrays intense home-cooking love—a fork glides effortlessly through warm, thick slices of homemade bread stuffed with melting mozzarella cheese and topped with a spoonful of anchovy sauce. The effect is the giddily satisfying, almost adolescent pleasure of having everything you love in one bite.
Three diners split a pasta entrée as a second course, and we chose very well. Fettuccine nere con arugula ($14) is an arousing toss of firm black noodles and wilting arugula with garlic, good oil, and a modest sprinkling of red and black pepper. I very much appreciated how the kitchen was careful to evenly apply the oil and seasoning to the fettuccine, so that each strand of pasta was coated with flavor. Like the other best offerings at Caesar’s Den, there’s little mystery involved, and you might find yourself thinking, I could make this at home. The good thing is that you’ll want to.
A complimentary salad recalled other similar Little Italy efforts, chilled crunchy lettuce leaves, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers, slathered in a cheesy cream dressing. These salads are a guilty pleasure—I love the excess and even the tooth-hurting grittiness, but they’re not to everyone’s taste. My friend found it all too much and didn’t finish it.
Good cooking and prime ingredients made what could have been uninspiring entrées pleasures to eat. The medallions in a veal saltimbocca ($22) had been hammered to thorough tenderness, and the application of a light cream sauce, topped with strips of prosciutto, was generous but not cloying. The plate, as was a shrimp entrée, was dressed up handsomely with buttery julienne carrots and thin zucchini slices. The seafood choices, truthfully, didn’t inspire—garlic sauces, spicy tomato sauces—and our waiter, a bit of an up-seller but a professional, allowed me to choose my preparation. I went for jumbo shrimp in puttanesca sauce ($21.50), which was maybe not the best idea—a thinner sauce would have better permeated the shrimp—but satisfying nonetheless. The shrimp were extra firm and fresh-tasting, the zesty olive- and caper-filled tomato sauce a further testament to the kitchen’s abilities.
Remember the pollo vesuvio ($18), a roasting-pan sauté of wine and garlic with bone-attached cubes of chicken, slices of homemade sausage, and potatoes. I’ve called a lot of restaurant food rustic but wish I had reserved it for the little-village delights of this—a huntsman’s chunky medley of earthy pleasures, seasoned simply.
I’m wary about overselling Caesar’s Den. It’s a very good restaurant, but it won’t change your world, nor does it want to. But think of it the next time someone paints the restaurants of Little Italy with one “pasta factory” brushstroke. Artistry may not often flourish here, but real craft does. It’s a restaurant’s restaurant.