DiFabio’s dishes up Italian comfort fare

plate of lasagna

Just about everybody in Louisville talks about how much we enjoy good old-fashioned Italian-American comfort food, pasta loaded with tomato sauce with garlic bread on the side and gulps of rustic red wine to wash it all down.

It’s a funny thing, though: As much as we proclaim our love for spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, manicotti and more, we don’t seem to do a good job of supporting the friendly folks who try to feed us this hearty “roots” fare.

Ferd Grisanti? Gone. Melillo’s? Departed. Ray Parrella’s? So long. Thinking aloud, and excluding pizzerias, more upscale northern Italian eateries and national chains, about the only family-Italian restaurant that’s hung on for the long haul is Come Back Inn with its Chicago-style immigrant fare.

Now, however, a new and demonstrably Italian-family eatery has come along, taking over the historic premises vacated when Ray Parrella’s closed after a six-year run last winter. DiFabio’s Casapela, now comfortably situated in one of the city’s oldest buildings, the smallish brick structure that was originally a toll house along the old Frankfort Pike nearly 200 years ago.

DiFabio’s is already a fixture in Madisonville, Ky., where Peter and Laura DiFabio have been serving up their Italian cuisine since 1995. Now their daughters, Caitlind and Sarah, are carrying on the family tradition with a second property in Louisville. The name “Casapela,” by the way, is a combination of the first letter of the family’s first names — Caitlind, Peter, Sarah and Laura, gently pushed together into an Italian-sounding moniker.

Caitlind, who presides amiably over the front of the house, has experience as a bartender at Proof on Main. Sarah, a Sullivan University culinary grad who was chef at Intermezzo in Actors Theatre of Louisville, is chef at DiFabio’s, where she’s joined by Chef Tim Yunker, also from Intermezzo.

You’ll find no stereotypical red-checked tablecloths or fake grapevines here, although the mood’s distinctly Italian with black-and-white checkerboard tile floors, textured cordovan wall treatment and off-white trim. Tables are draped in black oilcloth topped with white paper — and yes, crayons are available for the kids.

The menu isn’t overly long, but it offers a good choice of that comforting, hearty red-sauced immigrant fare and a few more upscale northern Italian dishes.

A half-dozen appetizers range in price from $4 (for an order of garlic bread topped with mozzarella along with garlic butter and herbs) to $8 (for escargots in pesto butter). A big Italian salad comes with all meals, as do small loaves of warm, yeasty house-made Italian bread scented with olive oil.

Pastas offer a mix-and-match combination of spaghetti, angel hair, fettuccine or linguine topped with meat sauce ($10), marinara sauce ($9), pesto ($9) or Alfredo ($11). Lasagna ($13) and manicotti ($12) also are available.

Seven main dishes, including three fish and four meat or poultry, range from $15 (for chicken piccata, Marsala or Parmigiana — make it $17 for veal) to $27 (for an 8-ounce beef filet topped with creamy blue Gorgonzola cheese sauce and toasted walnuts). Among others, the somewhat redundant shrimp scampi is $17; pan-seared salmon is $18, and tuna Florentine with applewood bacon, spinach, Gorgonzola and pine nuts is $20.

The wine list offers a short international selection. I instinctively went with the only Chianti, Melini ($26 for a bottle, $8 for a glass) and discovered to my delight that it comes in a wicker-basket bottle. There’s also a selection of mass-market bottled beers.

We started with an appetizer, stuffed mushroom caps ($7), which were served sizzling on an oval oven dish. Five fat mushroom caps were stuffed with a savory mix of breadcrumbs, chopped spinach, garlic, Parmesan cheese and dried herbs, baked in a little olive oil until the mushrooms were tender and steaming.

The salad consists of tender leaf lettuce tossed with grape tomatoes, black olives, marinated onion, shredded carrot, garbanzo beans (that’s “ceci” in Italian) and tangy peperoncini peppers, with a “secret” vinaigrette that looked like a blend of olive oil and red-wine vinegar with herbs.

Two tender rolls of manicotti ($12) pasta were stuffed with creamy ricotta-and-herb filling. It was topped with chunky marinara sauce and a heavy blanket of mozzarella. It was tasty and filling, but for my money, the toppings just about overpowered the manicotti. A lighter hand on the sauce and mozzarella would have let the more delicate manicotti and ricotta show their stuff.

A generous portion of spaghetti with meat sauce ($10) featured perfectly al dente long pasta topped with a meaty mix of ground beef, chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers, long-cooked with dried herbs and tomato paste and maybe a little red wine.

For dessert, crisp, golden-fried pastry tubes of cannoli ($6) were filled with a creamy, sweet pink mix of ricotta and maraschino cherries. Lovers of the ruddy red maraschino will love this. Maraschino doesn’t melt my heart, but it’s a personal thing. Pay your money and take your choice.

For a shared appetizer, two entrees and the bottle of Chianti, our toll was $63.10 plus a $13 tip. It’s good to have family Italian back in the neighborhood.

DiFabio’s Casapela
2311 Frankfort Ave.
Robin Garr’s rating: 82 points