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Step inside Casa Calamari and be blinded by a red-and-green neon squid, sporting a floppy chef's hat and flailing 10 arms. With his crooked smile and pupils of different sizes, it's clear this dude is already fried.
After turning away from the misshapen apparition, the second thing you'll notice is the glass shelf above the steam table, which runs the length of this boxy and informal Bay Ridge restaurant. The shelf flaunts a wealth of glistening vegetables. There's an orderly pile of thick asparagus—straight as soldiers at attention—and a helter-skelter stack of portobello mushroom caps. Dotted with cloves of garlic, broccoli rabe is often displayed, as are fat, crumb-spilling baked artichokes and grilled zucchini slices black-striped like prisoners in the movies. You'll see all sorts of salad fixings, too, including hothouse tomatoes, pristine leaves of romano marshaled for Caesar salads, pickled baby artichokes, and brined olives in several earthen shades.
Founded in 1995, Casa Calamari is one of Brooklyn's last great focaccerias—dining institutions descended from informal snack shops back in Sicily, where working stiffs would dash in for a plate of veggies, a seafood salad, or a small sandwich of cheese and cow spleen known as a vastedda, often eaten standing up. The preoccupation with oil-slicked vegetables reflected both the poverty of the islanders—for whom meatless meals were the norm—and the startling fecundity of Sicily's volcanic soil.
While the type of institution remains steadfastly Sicilian, the menu at Casa Calamari is mainly Italian-American, reflecting the raw materials that southern Italian immigrants found when they arrived here. The squid promised by the restaurant's moniker is delivered on a large platter ($11), the rings thick and golden, hacked from a specimen big enough to overturn a rowboat. A generic marinara sauce comes alongside, but considering how much Sicilians and their neighbors the Calabrians love spiciness, you won't be surprised to hear there's also an extra-hot version of the dipping sauce not advertised on the menu.
Clams have long been a Brooklyn passion, dating from the time when the Canarsie Indians dug them in the mudflats of Jamaica Bay. With a choice of littlenecks or cherrystones ($8.50 or $9.50 per dozen, respectively), the raw service is humble in the extreme—served in a battered aluminum baking pan with wedges of lemon, a tub of horseradish right from the jar, and a squirt of ketchup. The clams are chewy and saline, as unlike raw oysters as a bulldozer is from a baby. The baked variety lies under a thick crumb blanket that forces you to dig for the bivalves the same way the Indians once dug in the sand.
As with several other focaccerias in Brooklyn, the place doubles as a pizza parlor. In contrast to the pies at L & B Spumoni Gardens, Casa Calamari's are round, a little thicker than your typical Neapolitan pie, and lavished with a quantity of toppings impossible in our ancient, coal-burning pizza parlors like Totonno's, Lombardi's, and John's. The biggest gut bomb, the "speciale" ($21), features sausage, pepperoni, meatballs, mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and mozzarella, but the simpler pies are more desirable. Our favorite was affumicata ($19), which loads up the crust with smoked mozzarella, basil, San Marzano tomatoes, and—odd man out—sundried tomatoes. I guess it was inevitable that someone would find something to do with sundried tomatoes.
There are pastas, too, in all the predictable formulations. That towering masterpiece of Italian-American cooking, spaghetti with meatballs, features two orbs that might double as baseballs if you extracted them from their warm bath of sprightly tomato sauce, but even better is the rigatoni with sausages ($9.50). The links are of the fennel variety, and so well-browned that they crumble under your fork in a pleasing sort of way. Linguine with red or white clam sauce is another Italian-American standard executed here with aplomb.
But the modern foodie will especially want to groove on those glistening vegetables above the steam table, which jibe so well with our own contemporary eating preferences, establishing an unexpected affinity between us and the old-fashioned Sicilians. This being spring, don't miss the bull's-neck-size asparagus spears, served on a giant salad dressed with wine vinaigrette, and sufficient for three or four as an appetizer. You won't want to miss the stuffed artichoke, either, but best of all is anything made with broccoli rabe. The vegetable's green, leafy bitterness is moderated by caramelized garlic, but if the flavors are still too strong, consider eating it in a way unique to Brooklyn Italian-Americans: on a Cadillac-size hero ($6). It might just bring out your vegan inner self.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com