ONE MIGHT EXPECT a restaurant named for an infamous libertine to embrace a degree of excess.
It's no surprise then that Casanova, the newest eatery to occupy Boccata's former home at River and Craycroft roads, lives up to the expectation of absolute immoderation. The philosophy is evident from the moment you enter the restaurant, which revels in clandestine lighting amidst a backdrop of sumptuous plum curtains, gilded mirrors and vibrantly colored walls. Servers are outfitted in solid black, the better to slip unobtrusively to and from the table, and the stringed majesty of a Vivaldi concerto drifts through the space in muted tones. It's a setting worthy of Fellini, and one in which most diners will be pleased to repose.
Perhaps the only surprise at Casanova is that Italian food is not the specialty of the house. Embracing instead a pan-European/Continental sensibility, Casanova's menu is a gastronomic grand tour. Among the cross-Atlantic highlights are classic French onion soup gratiné, beef Wellington and ravioli Florentine.
The menu itself is divided into the parts of an opera, with prelude (appetizers), overture (soup or salad), aria (main course) and encore (desserts) comprising the elements of the epicurean oeuvre. As in opera, Casanova recommends diners experience the masterful menu as a whole. However, those sampling all courses will likely be both gratified and glutted by evening's end. Not only are the portions extremely generous, they're often aswim in the forbidden decadence of butter, cream, cheese and chocolate. Though the dishes are absolutely wonderful, a surfeit of such richness may not appeal to all diners. While it may be unprecedented at Casanova, discretion is advised when placing you order.
The opening act to our evening was a mound of mesclun greens tossed in a light shallot, caper and dill vinaigrette and bundled in thin strips of coral-pink smoked salmon ($6). A basket of sliced, warm sourdough bread accompanies the dish, which can be stripped of its layers or enjoyed bite by divine bite. The brilliant inclusion of the greens makes a salad unnecessary.
However, when we planned the evening's meal we were unaware that the smoked salmon appetizer included greens, and ordered the house salad ($4), as well as a bowl of French onion soup. Baby greens, savory croutons, sliced red onion and kalamata olives compose the salad, which is served with a refreshing orange-citrus vinaigrette. By far the most understated dish we sampled at Casanova, the salad is a delicious paean to simplicity.
The onion soup gratiné ($4) is less successful. The onion-suffused beef stock is rich and flavorful, but the touches that make the soup a grandstanding favorite are oddly amiss. On the evening I visited, the cheese topping had not been thoroughly melted, making it a challenge to penetrate the surface with a spoon, and beneath the cheese cowered a tough crust of bread. Traditionally, a round of French bread effortlessly mediates between the melted cheese and savory broth. In this instance, the wafer-thin bread was chewy and pliable. Deciding to forgo a battle with the dish, I quickly abandoned it.
However, whatever doubts the onion soup conjured, our magnificent main courses quickly banished.
At first glance, the ravioli Florentine might appear to be a conservative selection, but its aroma swiftly dispels any notions of temperance. Minced spinach, ricotta and parmesan cheese, along with the unadulterated zest of garlic, engorge each doughnut-sized round of pasta. A golden pool of saged brown butter sauce impresses the ravioli with a silky decadence. This extraordinary dish is profoundly satisfying.
As the kitchen had run through its beef Wellington for the evening, I opted for the day's special, which was a boneless chicken breast cooked cordon bleu style. The chicken breast is stuffed with parmesan risotto and prosciutto, topped with julienned carrot and parsnip, and bathed in a buttery Florentine sauce flecked with bits of spinach and tomato. It is a stunning creation. The chicken is moist and tender; the creamy risotto imparts a bare nip of parmesan sharpness; the delicate stringed vegetables are wonderfully seasoned with cracked black pepper and a dash of fresh tarragon; and the sauce infuses the whole beautifully. The immensity of the portion mirrored that of all Casanova's dishes. With luck, this special will receive an encore performance.
It's important to plan your meal accordingly in order to allow adequate room for the grand finale. Dessert choices range from pate choux pastries with ice cream, chocolate sauce and fresh berries to a red wine-poached pear filled with ground almond cream and glazed in an amber caramel sauce. Having already transgressed all thresholds of health consciousness, we ordered the Venetian fantasy ($7), a gargantuan petit four made of dense fudge cake, chocolate mousse and a coating of creamed chocolate. Fresh berries and a berry coulis complete the confection with a dash of color and a hint of tartness, but nothing can restrain the sweetness of this delight. Though thoroughly luscious, the work of two was still insufficient to demolish the chocolate tower.
Before dining at Casanova I had heard that the service was uneven, at times intrusive and at others totally neglectful. We found neither to be the case, our server expertly pacing each course and remaining perfectly atuned to our needs without ever becoming a nuisance. If problems still exist in this regard, we experienced none of them during our visit.
The wine list is somewhat abbreviated, but represents several fine vintages. Connoisseurs of the grape should be able to find a selection to please the palate. The setting is comfortable, and the view of the city is quite charming, though perhaps not the awe-inspiring panorama some higher-elevation restaurants display.
A quote from Casanova himself, elegantly highlighted on one of the restaurant's far walls, sums it up best: "I have been all my life, a victim of my senses..."
No one could deny that Casanova is a feast for the senses. Indulge!
Casanova Restaurant. 5605 E. River Road. 529-0939. Open daily 5 to 10 p.m. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DC, checks. Menu items: $4-$22.