The perks of tasting menus: Part of the fun is the element of surprise, and part is being served something that you wouldn't ordinarily order—and discovering a new, unlikely favorite.
That's how it happened with me and the Grilled Trout ($22) at Il Casale.
Shortly after the de Magistris brothers opened their Italian kitchen right in the middle of Belmont (their hometown), I hurried over to have a taste. Most everything on the menu looked appealing, but to get a good sense of what they had to offer, the server said I should just let the kitchen cook for me.* Fine by me; I like surprises.
I should first say that I enjoy eating nothing more than a bowl of homemade noodles, so the dishes I was most anxiously anticipating were chef Dante's housemade pastas. (Il Casale runs about eight different pasta dishes at a time.) I might have even felt a twinge of disappointment when the server presented me with the grilled trout as the main course (no second pasta?). But any doubt I had that this fish—albeit beautifully plated—would wow me was erased with the first bite.
The fish itself, a semi-boneless whole trout that Dante once told me they completely clean in-house (which is not only cost-effective, but also preserves the fish's fresh flavor), is stuffed with citrus slices and fired over a wood flame until the skin is char striped and crackly-crisp—you definitely want to eat it—and the flesh just cooked through, but still plenty moist. Then alongside, he spoons some of their Genovese salsa (the bold, well-seasoned North Italian equivalent of salsa verde) that leaks a bit of rich, grassy extra-virgin olive oil onto the fish, as well as an arugula and shaved fennel salad that's punchy with plenty of fresh lemon juice.
Perfect spring fish dish? You bet. But according to Dante's brother (and Il Casale's GM) Damian, the preparation has been so popular, it's one of the few dishes that never comes off the menu.
* The restaurant offers two tasting menus: the Fiat ($45 per person) and the Ferrari ($60 per person).