Restaurant Review: Cardone's

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

When I began quizzing him about the pasta at Cardone's, he proudly assured me it was - like most everything served in the restaurant - totally homemade.

How did he know? Well, because the energetic 27-year-old fellow - who was just then dialing up the all-Sinatra station for the house sound system - was in fact the chef and owner of Cardone's, and he furthermore informed me the food there was so good because he'd learned to cook it from his Noni (Italian grandmother).

The guy turned out to be right.

Open since February '08, Cardone's is located (all together now!) in a suburban strip mall. But step inside and you'll forget this quickly, because the charming eatery is pretty much the tiny, nice Italian joint you wish graced your own neighborhood.

Above a black-and-white checkerboard floor, the low and warm orange glow of Cardone's lighting is mood-soothing. For wall decorations, attractive black-and-white photographs of the Pantheon and shadowy La Dolce Vita-era Fellini-esque street scenes contrast effectively with vino-oriented stained-glassy works and colorful illustrations of fanciful, squat Italian guys playing musical instruments.

Cuisine-wise, Cardone's provides excellent food and values. Few of its generously sized and fresh-tasting scratch-made entrees - many centered on or sided with homemade pastas -inch above the $15 mark. They all come with cheesy toasted house bread served with herb-infused olive oil and one of the bigger and better house salads around.

Instead of that refreshing Italian house salad, you can select a Caesar (made with a vinaigrette, so not a white, sloppy and gloppy affair) or a huge Cardone's salad (a color, taste and texture fest but busy and sort of desserty with berries and cinnamony nuts) or a soup like the Ribollita (light, herby with lots of veggies but not as bready-thick as the "reboiled" classic) or a di giorno soup like the excellent Sausage and Peppers.

These are all good, but for something extra special, check out the warm homemade mozzarella salad ($9) - a crafty take on the Caprese assembled with milky, made-here cheese, roasted tomatoes and thin squash twirls plopped down in a winey bath of "dressing."

Though entrees are large, they don't eat like heavy gutbusters, as Cardone's mostly displays a light touch on the fat - with the overweighted exception of the housemade gnocchi ($9). Since those gnocchi were blunt and stubby noodles instead of the usual curvy bundles, they reminded me of overgrown spaetzle. They arrived swamped in a thick and garlicky gorgonzola cream sauce that resulted in an over-the-top richness I couldn't help but like, even if a little went a very long way.

Too many plain old red sauces masquerade on menus as Bologneses - well, Cardone's came closer than most ($17). If more tomatoey than traditional, it included pleasantly, mildly gamey ground wild boar and scored authenticity points for its winey character, carrot-derived sweetness and chunky meatiness. Plus it was terrific tossed on its accompanying homemade wide noodles.

The Scallops Puttanesca ($16) were also impressive, and that trio of huge, perfectly seared seafood ate about as good as any scallops in the city. They were served above bucatini (hollow pasta strands) tossed with a light diced tomato, caper, olive and bell pepper "sauce" that would've been even better sprinkled with hot chili flakes.

The Striped Bass ($18) was another wowing entree, even if its inky dark and beany ratatouille was marginally undercooked and the pesto on the flaky, expertly crusted, high-quality fish was in short supply.

But don't focus on my minor quibbles. Because from the aforementioned interesting offerings to al dente handmade spaghetti with big herby meatballs ($10) in a bright marinara sauce and crisp and creamy homemade cannolis ($5), to the fine deals on Italian wines, Cardone's has clearly established itself in the upper echelon of Columbus' Italian restaurants. Here's to Italian grandmas!

Cardone's Restaurant and Bar

377 W. Main St., Westerville