Too many restaurants preoccupy themselves with shuttling customers in and out in order to maximize profits. At family-owned Il Castello in Mamaroneck, patrons are openly encouraged to sit back, relax, and leisurely enjoy their meal.
Such meals are comprised of Caesar salad prepared tableside, followed by seafood pasta with homemade noodles and chicken scarpariello with hot cherry peppers and spicy Italian sausage. The Il Castello menu incorporates classic Italian favorites, many of which designed using longtime family formulas—like the eggplant rollatini. This appetizer, stuffed with ricotta, parmesan, and spinach, derives from owner Lenny Balidemaj’s grandmother’s recipe.
Originally from Montenegro, Balidemaj came to the U.S. at age twenty to follow in the footsteps of his elder family members and work in the restaurant business alongside his two brothers. Now, with years of varied experience under his belt, Balidemaj is proudly celebrating Il Castello’s five-year anniversary in 2014.
It was immediately apparent that Balidemaj deeply loves his work. He maintains discernibly close relationships with many customers, and I watched him temporarily join various tables lunching. Faithful regulars return to Il Castello as often as four or five times per week! Balidemaj takes care to remember the names and preferences of his repeat clientele.
Today, Balidemaj filleted my melt-in-your-mouth branzino himself, and I don’t suspect he was putting on a show for me. It seems he regularly enjoys being hands-on in food preparation and interaction with customers. Next, Balidemaj popped behind the cozy bar to mix and pour apple martinis for one table–it’s 5 o’clock somewhere!
A further extension of the warm reception diners receive at Il Castello is the kitchen’s willingness to tailor menu items to meet individual requests. The staff is very open to customer modifications of any kind—flexible enough to satisfy even the most particular eater. If dining with children, while there is no separate menu, you can order simpler, smaller plates for your little ones. If you’re craving pasta primavera but it’s not on the menu at the moment, chances are, the chef will happily prepare it for you.
The pasta dishes at Il Castello are certainly crave-worthy, indeed. There is a clear textural difference between fresh and dry pasta that accounts for the especially tasty noodles here—which are also available in whole wheat. I sampled homemade fettuccini with a dollop of the freshest ricotta I can remember eating. The tomato sauce is also made in house, and I appreciated that nothing I tasted during my visit was drowning in sauce of any kind.
In typical Italian fashion, Balidemaj served me a succession of courses from his seasonally-updated menu. Before the pasta, I began with a vegetable dish comprised of the silkiest strands of zucchini, mixed mushrooms, tomatoes, and corn prepared with white wine, garlic, and olive oil. I took note of several dishes whizzing by me, including yellowfin tuna, bay scallops, and homemade ravioli.
Balidemaj emphasized his seafood offerings, but from looking at the menu, I could see that any die-hard carnivore would also leave happily satiated. I overheard one woman exclaim that her chicken Parmesan was the best she’d ever tasted (and she claims to have tasted a lot). The designated lunch special menu also features something for every palate and attracts a large business crowd.
Desserts followed suit: most popular with customers are the homemade tiramisu and ricotta cheesecake. All sweets are made in-house, including gelato and sorbets. I sampled two scoops of pistachio and hazelnut gelato. Impressed by both flavors, I preferred the latter, while Balidemaj shared that pistachio is his favorite.
The cold, creamy-yet-light treat rounded out my memorably large lunch, but what stuck with me most was the lovely service I received. It was a pleasure speaking with Balidemaj, who sat with me as I indulged. He shared that the restaurant’s name (meaning “castle” in English) was selected because he liked the way it sounded and knew it would prove popular. A fitting choice, indeed!