DiFabio’s offers fine, family-style Italian along Frankfort Avenue

“Casapela.” Utter this word slowly, with Mediterranean rhythm, assonant and mellifluous, “Cah-sa-PEH-laaaah,” and it sounds as Italian as Tony Bennett crooning “Arrivederci, Roma.” But plug it into Google Translate or ask a friendly Italian what “Casapela” means, exactly, and you come up with nothing. Zero, zip, even, well, niente.

But it means a lot to the DiFabio family, friendly hosts of DiFabio’s Casapela in Clifton (and its parent shop in Madisonville, Ky.): “Casapela” is a quick mash-up of the family’s first names, Caity and Sarah and their parents Peter and Laura, the friendly folks who make these Italian-American eateries work.

DiFabio’s joined the Frankfort Avenue restaurant row two years ago and has become a popular spot on the strip. I hadn’t been back for a while, so, hungry for hearty Italian-American family fare, Mary and our friend Lucinda and I claimed a comfortable table in a back corner and settled in for a casual evening and a filling meal.

The smallish venue ranks as one of Louisville’s most historic structures. The 200-year-old building started life as a tollhouse on the old Frankfort Pike. Its small, covered porch offers a pleasant al fresco option for people-watching, but we like the comfy dining rooms, which have just enough iconic Italian-restaurant decor (strings of lights, Chianti bottles in wicker fiaschi, stacked cans of olive oil) without going over the top to red-checked tablecloths or fake grapevines.

The bill of fare is rooted in the classic old Italian-American family style, and when you’re in the mood, that’s all you really need. But it goes beyond that to incorporate some steak and seafood options that fall into a more upscale “Continental” category. Accordingly, while it’s not bewilderingly long, it offers a good choice of styles and prices. You can choose your dinner’s centerpiece for as little as $9 (for a bowl of pasta — your choice of spaghetti, angel hair, fettuccine or linguini — sauced with marinara or pesto), or you can take it up to $27 (for any of three filet mignon options, topped with gorgonzola, black peppercorns or the Fabio special with a red wine and veal stock sauce, mushrooms and ravioli on top). Shrimp, salmon and fresh tuna entrees come in at market price.

You can put together a pasta dinner to your liking by choosing one from Column A (meat sauce, marinara, pesto or alfredo, or order a slab of lasagna or dish of manicotti), and top it with a pick from Column B (meatball, chicken, sausage, shrimp or veal), at a toll ranging from $9 to $17 depending on your choice. A colorful Italian salad is served family-style with entrees, and six antipasti (appetizers from $4 for garlic bread to $8 for escargot with pesto butter) will whet your palate or maybe kick up your thirst for something from Caity’s well-tended bar.

Youngsters may enjoy eight Italian-style picks from the Kid’s Menu from $3 to $6 for a child-size portion; those of drinking age may prefer to peruse the wine list, which features about 20 mostly Italian selections in the surprisingly affordable range of $26 to $45 for a bottle, $7 to $9 for a glass. We summoned a hearty red, Farnese 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($30), and enjoyed it with all our courses.

A pair of appetizers proved ample for the three of us to share. Seven stuffed mushroom caps ($7) came warm in an oval oven dish. They were filled with spinach, garlic, Parmesan and Italian herbs, and cooked through while still retaining some firmness.

The “baked goat” ($7) was a small black iron skillet filled with dark, thick, long-simmered but not overly sweet marinara sauce topped with a pool of melted Capriole goat cheese, with an abundant pile of crispy flat bread triangles alongside. I knew I shouldn’t eat them all with more filling goodies coming, but they were too addictive to stop.

The salad was decent if not world-stopping, a good-size bowl of romaine, cherry tomatoes, black olives, carrots, chickpeas, onions, croutons and peperoncini with an Italian vinaigrette.

Manicotti ($12) were a fine rendition of the Italian standard: Two pasta sheets were rolled around a creamy, steamy ricotta filling, topped with marinara and mozzarella, and baked until the cheese was molten and browned.

An 8-ounce Gorgonzola filet ($27) was an inch thick, medium-rare as ordered with a cool pink center; it was covered with crumbled Gorgonzola and chopped toasted walnuts, surrounded by a rich, creamy Mornay. A small portion of pesto pasta came alongside, a $1 up-charge from the usual veg du jour, zucchini and summer squash.

Veal piccata ($18) was satisfying, too, a thin, tender scalloppine served atop a ration of angel hair pasta, sauced with a properly tart lemon-and-caper white wine sauce with plenty of sautéed sliced mushrooms.

I have no idea who ordered strawberry-lemon buttermilk cake ($6), as none of us had any room for dessert; but the sweets are all made in-house, and a wafer-thin spoonful tasted mighty good.

A filling dinner, with good wine, good laughs and good friends, came to $116.60, plus a $24.40 tip for flawless service.

DiFabio’s Casapela Italian Restaurant
2311 Frankfort Ave. • 891-0411
difabios.com
Rating: 86