April 28, 2011

Casalinga in Raleigh, or Why I Love Yelp

I don't know if you've discovered Yelp yet (it's very possible that I'm behind the trend on this one), but I highly suggest that you do. If you're a foodie and you like to travel, Yelp is there to hold your hand and guide you to a good restaurant. How? Well, with its ability to find the closest Italian/Japanese/Greek/Lebanese/French/Thai (etc.) restaurant, and to provide you with diner reviews, price summaries, and contact information so that you can make an informed choice about your meal away from home, without having to resort to a chain restaurant.

For the most part, I've used Yelp with great success to locate both hidden and well known restaurants wherever T and I decide to visit on our weekends away from the swampland Eastern North Carolina.

The best example of Yelp's prowess came when T and I were in Raleigh about two months ago, and we were a) stranded in the suburbs by Priceline's questionable definition of "downtown hotels" and b) too tired to drive downtown for dinner. I spent a few minutes browsing Yelp's suggestions for "Italian food," and settled on Casalinga, a restaurant whose reviews were a wonderful combination of glowing and more glowing.

But when T and I pulled up to the strip mall that Casalinga calls home, we very nearly kept driving. The shops surrounding it were run down and empty, and the restaurant's facade made it look more like an adult video store than a restaurant.

Too tired to keep hunting for dinner, I convinced T that Yelp had never misled us before, and, happily, I was right.

Casalinga's owner, Carlo, has used all the money he saved on the completely bare and depressing location of his restaurant to spruce up its interior. Stepping inside, you'll be impressed/overwhelmed by the number of autographed portraits adorning the entryway walls, featuring everyone from the requisite James Gandolfini to several politicians to, of course, Robert DeNiro.

Painted and decorated to within an inch of its life (but in a charming sort of way), Casalinga is a tiny replica of an equally tiny piazza, complete with checkered awnings and faux cracks in the walls. On Sunday nights (which is when we visited), Carlo hires a singer to sit in the corner and belt out a staggering number of tunes from memory. Seriously. The man knew every word to Brandy (You're a Fine Girl). And yes, maybe a few diners got sick of him, and maybe some even started discussing his performance loudly enough for him to hear, but we loved him.

Like any Italian restaurant worth its salt, Casalinga serves a variety of fresh baked breads, including some of the best focaccia I've ever had. Because I believe that a standard (by which I mean non-innovative) Italian restaurant should be judged by the quality of its basic dishes, I ordered the spaghetti bolognese, and it came in a pink sauce that was equal parts comforting and delicious. T ordered the seafood ravioli and was equally happy, although his cream sauce was a bit heavy (but, then again, what cream sauce isn't?). Our portions were so enormous that we couldn't even think about dessert, and, content to have discovered a diamond in the rough...est strip mall for miles, we made our way back to the "downtown" hotel.

The moral of this story is that sometimes, great restaurants have to sacrifice quality of location for quality of experience, and we shouldn't hold this against them. Instead, we should hide our valuables in the trunk, lock our cars, and head inside for a delightful meal.

1 comment:

  1. Yelp is helpful, especially in bigger cities. But it can also be ridiculous. This tumblr used to be called "The Yelp Elite" but they had to change: http://theblankelite.tumblr.com/