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Dante’s Paradiso

For the owner-chef of Il Casale, home is where the restaurant is

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / August 19, 2009
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BELMONT - Hanging in his new restaurant, Il Casale, is a painting of Candida, Italy, 34-year old owner-chef Dante de Magistris’s ancestral home. Il Casale is very much a family operation - de Magistris’s partners include two of his brothers, Damian and Filippo, and his father, Leon - and Candida looms large over everything they do.

Keeping a familial home in the small (pop. 1,100) southern Italian hilltop town is one tie that binds. Clan members try to visit there at least once a year. Another is the rustic cooking style, passed down though their paternal grandmother, that dominates the menu at Il Casale (“rural home’’), which opened this spring in a renovated Belmont firehouse.

De Magistris has already proved he knows how to manage a successful restaurant in tough economic times. Last fall, in response to a tumbling stock market, he slashed prices and shrank the menu at dante, his award-winning eatery in Cambridge’s Royal Sonesta Hotel. Il Casale, long in the works by then, debuted with a wallet-pleasing selection of sfizi (little tastes, $5 each) and entrees, most priced under $20. The Belmont restaurant has been an immediate hit, its tables filled with hungry diners and its classic southern Italian fare (fritto misto, minestra, panna cotta) drawing rave reviews from critics and customers alike.

Yet another familial tie is the stories told about a way of life that transcends culinary style.

“A typical Italian village, mostly agricultural,’’ is how Leon de Magistris, sitting with his sons at the restaurant one afternoon, describes Candida. His father was a tailor and one uncle of his a monsignor. Church officials often dropped by for meals, he recalls, usually prepared by Leon’s mother, who, aware that clergy were traditionally fed the richest dishes a hostess could conjure up, opted for a lighter, healthier cooking style. “Hers was low-fat cooking before there was low fat.’’

Heads nod around the table. Joining in the conversation are Dante, Damian, and Filippo, all raised in Belmont. Damian, 30, the youngest, serves as general manager. Filippo, 36, is responsible for ordering supplies, supervising payroll, and grooming the service staff. Dante runs the kitchen, dividing his time between his two restaurants.

The food at Il Casale can be as simple as arugula tossed with olive oil and lemon juice, accompanied by a toasted bread salad topped with burrata (a creamy mozzarella-style cheese). Or a traditional carbonara made with the finest, freshest ingredients. Or pork and beef meatballs simmered in a San Marzano tomato sauce, garnished with fresh basil. This is reasonably priced family fare.

According to Damian, who has taught writing and freelances as a Web designer, the primary reason the brothers work well together is having complementary strengths and interests. “If we were all trying to chip away at the same stone, we’d shatter it,’’ he says.

Filippo, whose talents include bread baking, wine making, and sculpting, admits he did not join the enterprise lightly. “We argued about what would and wouldn’t work,’’ he says. Ultimately, he adds, “We knew we could trust one another.’’

Dante calculates it took six months to get his Cambridge restaurant running smoothly. That’s not unusual, he says, having cooked in some of Boston’s - and Italy’s - finest establishments and seen how hard a task that can be. “I see restaurants that have been around for 10 years and still haven’t got the right fit in place,’’ he says.

Much like the cuisine they have come to champion, the de Magistris’s story is an appealing blend of Old World and New, simplicity, and sophistication.

Leon and his mother immigrated to the Boston area in the 1960s. Abandoning plans to join the priesthood, he became a successful hairdresser; Leon and Co., his Belmont salon, a few doors down from the restaurant, is widely known among Boston fashionistas. At his country home in Woodstock, Vt., the family grows many of the herbs and vegetables served at their two restaurants. One more tie that binds.

Dante credits his father for nurturing his early interest in cooking. “I was always in the kitchen, fascinated by watching my grandmother cook,’’ he recalls. “We’d go out to eat, and my father would encourage me to go back into the kitchen to watch.’’

At age 4, as the oft-repeated story goes, Dante started a kitchen fire by cooking eggs in a Tupperware container. His career path was established early, however, and by 13, he was working in local restaurants in between summer trips to Italy. Plans to attend the Culinary Institute of America changed after a post-high school apprenticeship in Italy, where Dante cooked in restaurants from Florence to Bologna, seldom more than four months at a time. While serving as sous-chef at Ristorante Don Alfonso on the Amalfi Coast, he caught a game-changing break when the chef went on a road trip and Dante was put in charge. Guide Michelin reviewers showed up and later awarded Don Alfonso a coveted third star, singling Dante out for special praise.

Back in the United States, his employers and mentors grew to include Michael Schlow (when he ran Cafe Louis), Lydia Shire and Daniele Baliani (at the former Pignoli), and Jody Adams and Michela Larson (blu). His biggest adjustment, Dante says, was learning restaurant management American-style. “In Europe, make a mistake and you’re getting a potato thrown at your head,’’ he says with a smile. “I was this 21-year-old kid telling 30-year-olds what to do in a stern way. It took time for me to figure it out.’’

Adams and Baliani in particular helped him tame his temper and adopt a more laid-back managing style. Baliani now works for him at Il Casale. From Adams, says Dante, “I learned to step back, make note of a mistake, and talk to the people involved later, so it didn’t happen again. Trying to fix it right away only caused more mistakes.’’ It was at blu, according to Adams, that Dante mastered the difference between being a great cook and managing a successful restaurant, thereby proving he was ready to go out on his own.

“What makes Dante unique is he embodies two worlds of Italian cooking,’’ says Adams, “the traditional cuisine he learned from his grandmother and what he learned in contemporary Italian restaurants. He’s this fabulous interweaving of the traditional and the modern.’’

For an up-and-coming generation of Boston chefs, Dante has emerged as something of a mentor in his own right. Sunday dinners at his North End condo have become a regular gathering spot for talented young chefs like Will Gilson (Garden at the Cellar), Rodney Murillo (Avila), Anthony Susi (Sage), Marc Orfaly (Pigalle), and Louis DiBiccari (Sel de la Terre).

DiBiccari, who also has brothers in the restaurant business, says Dante’s style of cooking and restaurant managing is a natural outgrowth of his personality and familial roots. “He’s been a leader and a help to many of us,’’ Di-Biccari says. “When guys like me were still line cooks, we looked up to people like Dante and Tony [Susi] as a sort of Rat Pack. There’s a noncompete clause in our friendship that’s pretty rare, I think.’’

“Everyone supports each other in ways a lot of cities don’t,’’ agrees Dante. “It’s a small town with so many talented cooks and chefs my age. We have to work together to help make this city better and better.’’

Like family.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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