29 January 2014

why we dine out: come a casa, 75011

I still read Pitchfork. But since it now takes less time to download albums than it does to parse reviews, I usually just peek at the point score and make the call myself. I find it's a good way to avoid the publication's increasingly boosterish take on certain handpicked darling bands, a trend that began with Deerhunter and has reached self-parodical peaks with coverage of Savages and Perfect Pussy.*

This past December, Pitchfork cited Perfect Pussy's slight 4-song demo as among the Honorable Mentions for Albums of the Year. When I played it for my friend C, a young gallerist from New Zealand, she wrinkled her nose. "Yeah Bikini Kill blah blah blah, we've heard this before." We agreed that Pitchfork was having an NME moment, a paroxysm of hyperbolic hype about something totally unproven, deriving from the writerly impulse to say things messianically.

Editors are supposed to throw cold water on that sort of thing. The task is arguably more important in food and wine journalism, since readers can't (yet) choose to simply download a meal. It always costs money and time. Quite a few Paris food writers recently had their own NME moments over a shoe-sized Tuscan restaurant by Voltaire called Come a Casa. I duly dined there and came away slightly disappointed - not by the meal, which was basically as advertised, but by Paris food writing.

I would forgive any of the major French publications for breathless praise of Come a Casa.(Though, interestingly, that has yet to arrive in this instance.) That's because their readership knows niente about Italian cuisine. It's why sourcing Italian ingredients at the city's decent Italian traiteurs is such a frustrating experience. In front of you in line to order are always two or three clueless native biddies who demand long explanations of such exotic ingredients as parmesan and ricotta. "Mais il est fort!" they invariably pronounce, upon tasting a sample of anything whatsoever. It takes 30 minutes to buy a Chinotto in these places because Parisians at large are utterly naive about Italian cuisine.

Anglophones writing about cuisine in Paris for the benefit of other Anglophones have to hold themselves to a more worldly standard. Serious regionally-specific Italian food is available in just about every major American city. In New York and San Francisco one practically has to work to avoid it. It's not impossible to find in London.

Here in Paris, we're apparently delighted merely to find Italian cuisine that isn't insincere.

Sincerity is the entirety of Come a Casa's charm. Owner Flavia Federici is a former architect, and her relative restaurant inexperience is perceptible in artless plating, over-adorned tables, and very good-natured but slightly clumsy service. (Service at Come a Casa, it must be said, effortlessly bests that at most Paris restaurants merely by being good-natured.)

Cleverly, the restaurant's name forestalls criticism of unprofessionality. It really is like eating in someone's Tuscan home. But my friend N, who travels often to Lucca, was quick to qualify that the perhaps the owner of the Tuscan home in question isn't terribly informed. Italians who know food eat better than this.

I enjoyed an appetizer of winningly fresh swordfish carpaccio rather more than I expected to, given the salady plating. And bufala mozzarella with Tuscan ham was fine, neither more nor less than the sum of its parts.

But stracciatella came pitifully overladen with accompaniments, like a child on a dais in a village saint's-day parade. The sunflower seeds, pecorino, raisins, mixed leaves, and sesame seeds did nothing but obscure the occasion of the cheese.

My rich porcini lasagne was lovably squashed-looking, a positive thing in my book. (Lasagnes that stand too proud look like leftovers rigid from the fridge.)

But my friends mostly took a middling gnocchi with tomato and bottarga, a thoroughly anti-climactic dish, and one offered as a complementary mid-course at more serious Italian restaurants. Come a Casa's cuisine on the whole begs the classic customer complaint : I can (and routinely do) cook superior Italian cuisine at home.

In the comfort of my own home, I also drink better Italian wine. Come a Casa's list cites neither vintages nor winemakers. It's mostly composed of bad surprises, like Ruffina Chianti and faceless Tuscan Vermentini.

My friends and I polished off a bottle of rather chemically Antica Fratta Franciacorta (erroneously cited as hailing from Tuscany on Come a Casa's list) before alighting on the restaurant's lone bottle of enjoyable wine: Chianti domaine Regio di Miscianello's 2010 Rosso di Miscianello.

Pietro Russano, of nearby Italian cave-à-manger La Retrobottega, has been serving the Regio di Miscianello's masterful Chianti for several years now. The Rosso di Miscianello, a steel-aged declassified kid-brother to said wine, is about half the price, and equally enjoyable in its way. Crunchy dark cherry fruit and acid as swift as dusk in the autumn - every I want from an uncomplicated traditional Sangiovese.

In Federici's defense, she says she seeks to improve the wine list, but cites the difficulty of sourcing good Italian wine in Paris. Surprisingly, she hadn't even heard of La Retrobottega, which offers, ten minutes away on rue Saint Bernard, one of Paris' best selections of natural Italian wine. (My other go-to address for Italian wine in Paris is the épicerie RAP Paris, on rue Rodier.)

So what have other Paris food writers found in Come a Casa? Certainly no great advance in Italian restaurateurism in Paris. It's an inexpensive and charming spot for some pasta at lunch - a heartwinning Italian restaurant only if one still associates Italian cuisine with kitchen-primitivism. As with that Perfect Pussy demo tape, it's a barely-there suggestion that its authors might, at some point in the future, produce work of a high standard.

On the other hand, if we prematurely laud places like Come a Casa, we create unrealistic expectations, while also removing the incentive for the restaurant to improve. Take that same phenomenon and apply it city-wide, and you have the stunted state of Italian cuisine in Paris. Everyone ought to ask for more.

* Someone on the editorial staff likes hot rock chicks. I can empathise. I have a 20-year-long crush on Justine Frischmann.

Come a Casa
7, rue de Pache
75011 PARIS
Métro: Voltaire
Tel: 01 77 15 08 19

Related Links:

Paris By Mouth, in which I am involved as a contributing editor, cited Come a Casa as one of the best restaurant openings of 2013.

Patricia Wells paints a very pretty picture of Come a Casa.

David Lebovitz fell for Come a Casa, although possibly only in comparison to the other restaurant he described in same newsletter, which sounded like an outright catastrophe.

Alexander Lobrano tweets that Come a Casa is "great Italian food in Paris at last!"

Lindsay Tramuta-Morel applauds Come a Casa for Afar.

Some gushing about Come a Casa at Little Black Book Paris. The French syntactical cliché of setting a scene with evocative sentence fragments will never stop making me gag.

Solid Italian cuisine in Paris:
La Retrobottega, 75011
Caffe dei Cioppi, 75011
Rino, 75011 (Although it was recently sold to new ownership.)


  1. There are some real non-DOC gems to be found at Chateaubriand's Le Cave as well, and for prices slightly lower than at (the admittedly terrific) Retrobottega.

    I hadn't heard of RAP before, and I plan to alleviate that soon. Like, tonight soon. So thanks for the heads up.

  2. OK about Monomania, but Microcastle and even Halcyon Digest deserved their 9.2.