High marks for Palisades’ Casa Nostra

Located in the Highlands section in Pacific Palisades, Casa Nostra Ristorante, a classy, Lombardy-style establishment, in a short time has made a name for itself based on its quality, reasonably priced fine cuisine and glorious atmosphere, replete with a mountain view.

Walking through the door, I am greeted heartily by Giovanni Zappone, the restaurant’s managing co-owner, and his maitre d’, a fellow Italian. Sinatra croons in the background as I take my seat. The music, as soft as the lighting, wafts across the subdued dining room; a melange of Degas-style paintings, woodsy rafters and industrial pipes.

Zappone personally attends to every diner.

“Everyone is special,” he said, adding that he wants “each person to leave through the door satisfied.”

Last August, Zappone opened Casa Nostra, his first restaurant, with co-owners Michele Scarpino and chef Gerardo Ballesteros. The son of trattoria owners in his native Italy, Zappone followed a childhood friend, successful restaurateur Satino Coccia, from their hometown of Milan to Los Angeles in 2000, when Zappone began working at Ago in West Hollywood, and later at E. Baldi in Beverly Hills. The latter’s owner, Eduardo Baldi, is the son of Georgio Baldi of Georgio’s in Santa Monica Canyon.

“I had the good fortune of working with Eduardo,” said Zappone, a Northridge resident. “I learned a lot about everything from him: the food, the service, how to run the business.”

Zappone’s philosophy is simple: pay more for the best products and the freshest ingredients rather than indulge in shortcuts that might compromise the taste.

His philosophy is paying off in spades. The papardelle d’anatra (duck ragu atop noodles) will melt in your mouth, and the fettucini boscaiola (white wine sauce-soaked pasta topped with Italian sausage and mushrooms) may read like a simple dish on paper, but your taste buds will thank you. Gourmet pizzas, such as the quattro formaggi (fontina, Gorgonzola, mozzarella and pecorino cheeses), are thin, crusty and scrumptious, and not crass with toppings.

The branzino alla livornese (Mediterranean sea bass sauteed with cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives, served with spinach) is a signature dish here. Another winning plate is the lobster pasta, a delicious bed of fettuccine mingling crabmeat with cherry tomatoes, and topped with a buttery butterfly langostino. My personal favorite is the epic costata di manzo, a charbroiled 20 oz. Angus rib-eye steak, flanked by roasted potatoes and spinach that arrives as succulent as it is large.

In order to please the regulars, Zappone rotates a dozen specials every other day, so some of the best entrees may be off the menu. A Thursday-night special featured sliced New York steak coated with sauteed porcellino mushrooms and black truffles, and accompanied by small bulbs of roasted potato.

The appetizers change as well. Ricotta cheese with bacon bits perk up the spinach salad while jumbo scallops surround the caponata, a reddish mound of eggplant covered in Mediterranean sauce, extra virgin olive oil, and chopped tomatoes.

All of the desserts, including the tiramisu, the cheesecake (the torta di formaggio, made of vanilla-flavored ricotta) and a flourless chocolate cake, are made on the premises. The standout is their stellar creme brulee, which I complement with a cup of cappuccino.

An extensive wine bar, stacked high with bottles of some 300 varieties of fine vino, provides a veritable fortress of options to accompany your meal.

Before opening his ristorante in August 2009, Zappone went to great lengths to distance Casa Nostra from its short-lived predecessor, another Italian restaurant that once stood in the same location. Gone is the glaring red awning, and Zappone has re-tiled the floor and lightened up the interior by knocking out sections of wall to expand the space. The walls have been repainted a pleasing pale yellow. The result is an interior that sparkles like a glass of spumante while the covered patio still offers that lush mountain view of Santa Ynez Canyon. A nice perk: Free self-parking in the spacious lot prefacing the restaurant and ample street parking nearby.

Casa Nostra is here to stay. Zappone signed a 15-year lease, and thankfully, area diners, fueled on great word of mouth, have responded. Perhaps word of Zappone’s generosity has spread: It’s not uncommon for the restaurateur to spoil his customers with a bonus antipasto or a flute of muscat with Italian cookies, simply because he wants to make their evening memorable.

As families roll in and the ambiance grows louder and full of life, Zappone reflected on crossing his first year in business: “I feel lucky here,” he said. “We’ve very happy.”

Casa Nostra Ristorante, 1515 Palisades Dr., in the Highlands section of Pacific Palisades. Contact: 310.454.8889; casanostraristorantela.com

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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