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You can't judge a book by its cover they say - or a restaurant by its facade either, as it turns out. Casa Mia, is located in the heart of Niagara Falls, Ont.'s strip mall city on Portage Road, in a stucco imitation of a Spanish hacienda. That hardly prepares you for what you see when you walk through the door.

The place is stunningly turned out in sophisticated contemporary style. And the menu is exciting.

The walls of this restaurant are a stark, unflinching white, the floor natural wood or brown and black tile. Furnishings are as sleek as Donatella Versace. There's a wine room, too - you can see the ceiling-high shelves behind glass doors. Once in a while a server glides in and grabs a bottle or two. And this wine room sports a big table that seats about 10 - a great place for a party.

The fall/winter menu features standard favorites but also unique goodies like a Trio of Smoked Fish (salmon, trout and arctic char with marinated winter slaw, $13.95) or grilled quail with a polenta cake and roasted tomato and pancetta sauce ($12).

There are pastas like Gnocchi in Gorgonzola Sauce ($16.50) and Cannelloni Fiorentina, stuffed with veal and spinach. Entrees are a little more conventional, true.

But there's always the free-range chicken stuffed with spinach and goat cheese ($19.90) and the Striped Sea Bass served with root vegetable chips and chardonnay butter sauce for just under $27.

Our meal began with slabs of rustic bread served with restaurant-made dipping oil. Half sweet, half hot, that oil contained balsamic vinegar and hot pepper flakes.

Beef Vegetable Soup was good and the Warm Mushroom Salad ($12.50) was excellent. A medley of mushrooms were laid out on an attractive plate with black pepper-encrusted goat cheese. The dressing was a dusky thick one, again based on balsamic vinegar. (Tell the kitchen, however, to dump those tired sprigs of parsley.)

The Companion's Veal Chop entree ($34.93) was substantial, at least an inch thick, I'd say, and tender as could be. But what took the dish a level higher was the truffle oil that infused the sauce. Truffles possess an almost supernatural quality and are worth every hundred dollars they cost. They make magic.

They turned up again in my entree - Duck Linguine ($22.98), a handsome mound of housemade pasta dotted with large pieces of duck confit and drizzled with a duck broth/truffle reduction. (I could drink the stuff for breakfast.)

With both these entrees we consumed glasses of the house red wine. A Sicilian red (no other menu description and only one of four available by the glass). In the light of that spectacular wine room, we thought it - and, to tell the truth, the list itself - disappointing.

Desserts were fine. A cooling cassata with layers of different colored, liqueur-drizzled gelato stood up well against the infinitely complicated "creation of the day"; call this a set of variations on the theme of chocolate and whipped cream - one of your better themes, come to think of it.

CASA MIA *** 1/2

WHERE: 3518 Portage Road, Niagara Falls, Ont. (905-356-5410). A stunningly decorated restaurant behind an ordinary facade right in the middle of mall city. Plus an imaginative menu of Italian dishes. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa

FAVORITE DISH: Warm Mushroom Salad, Duck Linguine

NEEDS WORK: All food is of high quality

PRICE RANGE: Dinner entrees from $13.81 Canadian. In many cases vegetables are included

SERVICE: Excellent

HOURS: Lunch, Monday through Friday; dinner, Sunday through Thursday until 9, Friday and Saturday until 10

HEALTHY CHOICES: Grilled Sea bass, Cannelloni Fiorentina


PARKING: In the lot

KID APPEAL: No kids' menu

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