Francesco Visone, chef and owner of Casa Visone, “believes that the best food is what he calls peasant food: Simple and uncomplicated made with the best and freshest ingredients that are available to him.” So says the website for Casa Visone Italian Bistro, an Italian restaurant on Queen Street in downtown Martinsburg.
My friend, Pap Ricka, and I love Italian food and we thought we’d check it out. I was very intrigued by the statement on the home page where Chef Francesco says, “The recipe book was written 2,000 years ago by the Etruscans. I simply follow their wisdom.”
Wow! This did not sound like a plate of spaghetti and meatballs kind of place.
The outside of Casa Visone is painted in Italian colors of red, white and green. We parked on the street in front of the restaurant and entered. We were greeted by Eva, Francesco’s wife and the hostess of Casa Visone, and invited to sit wherever we wished.
Our waiter came over with a wine list and menus. We got a glass of wine and considered our menu options. Like many Italian restaurants, the menu began with zuppe (soup) followed by antipasti (appetizers). The soups were traditional: pasta fagioli, full of white beans and pasta in a tomato sauce; and minestra di verdure, a vegetable soup.
The antipasti included several types of crostini, as well as several vegetable dishes. There was crostini pomodoro e basilico: tomatoes and basil with balsamic vinegar on bread; and salmone con crostini: Norwegian salmon on a garlic crostini with spring-mix lettuce.
Asparagi Parmigiana con prosciutto paired asparagus with prosciutto (dry-cured Italian ham) and was topped with a cream sauce. Melanzane alla barese combined grilled eggplant, tomato and mozzarella cheese, and was baked until hot and gooey.
Next on the menu were insalate (salads). Along with familiar offerings like Caesar and Caprese (tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) were insalata panzanella: a salad of bread, tomatoes, basil and onion with a red-wine vinegar dressing; and insalata arugula Parmigiano: arugula in a lemon vinaigrette with Parmesan cheese.
Pasta was next and the choices were difficult. There was pasta with the house-made tomato basil sauce (which the restaurant sells) and pasta topped with shrimp, or sausage or crab.
How about Penne Toscana: Penne pasta in a tomato basil sauce with black olives, prosciutto, arugula and parma? Or ravioli con porcini: cheese-stuffed ravioli with porcini mushrooms in a sherry cream sauce? This was getting harder and harder.
Entrees began with pollo al Chianti: Chicken breast simmered in Chianti with grapes and arugula. Grapes and arugula? Now that is an interesting combination. Bistecca di maiale infusa con sherry was a double-cut pork chop stuffed with fontina cheese with a mushroom sherry sauce.
Even the New York strip steak sounded amazing: Bistecca alla Griglia Tartufata was a grilled 12-ounce New York strip topped with arugula and truffle.
Now I don’t know what you call “peasant food,” but to me these sounded like pretty lucky peasants. After going back and forth quite a bit, Pap chose the spinaci freschi con Parmigiano: fresh spinach sautéed with mushrooms and garlic and topped with Parmesan cheese, as his appetizer.
For his entrée, he picked black ink linguine with sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms — and shrimp in a white-wine butter sauce. I couldn’t wait to try that. I decided upon the trota alle erbe: grilled trout with a sauce of lemon, capers, garlic, basil and white wine.
While we waited for our food, we looked around. The room was long and narrow with a nice bar area along the side. Eva stood behind it and chatted with us throughout the evening. Along the other wall were tons of family photos showing relatives in all stages of life. A bit farther down were banners featuring prominent Italian cities. The atmosphere was friendly and charming.
Our waiter brought us bread and poured olive oil on our small plates. He returned with a giant pepper mill and ground fresh pepper into the oil.
Pap’s spinach appetizer was made with mature spinach — not the baby stuff that can end up feeling like a wet napkin once it has dressing on it. It was still crisp with a subtle and delicious flavor.
The black ink linguine was outstanding. The flavor was like nothing I had ever tasted. Made with squid ink, the linguine was really black, with a delicate hint of fish flavor. The shrimp and mushrooms were perfectly cooked, as well.
My trout also was delicious. Two thin filets were cooked until slightly crispy and topped with a light lemon caper sauce. I had a side of sautéed vegetables which perfectly complemented this light, but filling meal.
The Etruscans were really on to something and Chef Francesco executes it to perfection. I can easily envision myself eating my way through the entire menu, one enticing dish after another. I can’t wait to go back.
Anne Chovey is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail writer who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.