‘Cesca Ristorante & Trattoria opened in June in the location of the former Buccaneer Restaurant. It is tucked away on a cobblestone street in downtown Charleston. The restaurant is a sister property to ‘Cesca, Manhattan and brings to the Lowcountry the foods of Italy.
Owner Anthony Mazzola, like so many of us, fell under the Sirens’ song of pluff mud, historic preservation, grits and Southern hospitality. It did not take him long to open an outpost of his New York restaurant.
The Charleston restaurant opened with a full complement of brunch, lunch and dinner services. It has since scaled back to dinner only and a new prix-fixe menu that was added this week.
‘Cesca is one of the more attractive restaurants to open this year. Mazzola and his team have transformed 5 Faber St. into a sophisticated space that marries the rustic nuance of farm tables with modern accents of warm, pleated drum-shaded lighting and a color palette that both calms and energizes.
Like its sister property in NYC, circular booths lend intimacy and privacy to the dining space. Tables, however are closely set together. A lot of jockeying goes on as your courses arrive.
The carnelian-colored bar area and the adjacent lounge is a pleasant refuge for cocktails, wonderful wines and a bar menu. Thursdays through Saturdays will find the piano put to good use and the canned music humbled by local musicians. The lounge space, with its community table and high tops, may be reconfigured, according to general manager Leon Camaj.
If there is one word that describes ‘Cesca, it is textured. You see it in the exposed brick walls, chairs with softly upholstered seats and nubby fabric backs; twisted stems, almost driftwood-like shielding lights, the patina of age on prints of fruits and flowers.
Even the menu speaks with dimension: charred, rippled, roasted, grilled and crusty.
‘Cesca’s culinary compass points to the south of Italy. Dinner here, from antipasti to dolci, can run $100 per person with wine. You can easily eat for less, especially since all the pastas are available as half-orders.
Try a dish per la tavola (for the table) and share Anthony’s mom’s meatballs ($10). Tender, well-seasoned pork, veal and beef (the trinity of a good meatball) are surrounded by red gravy, and they partner well with goat cheese-filled ravioli ($16, whole order). Fritto misto ($11) and salumi misti ($14), assorted fried vegetables and mixed cured meats, lend themselves to sharing.
Chef Jason Colon also offers an assortment of crudo ($4.95 each). Raw fish anointed with flavored oils, arrogant chiles and the capers and pine nuts of the Italian south are a light way to begin your dinner.
Antipasti are varied ($7-$16). An order of octopus with micro greens and olive tapenade and salsa verde was flavorful but a little toothsome.
Salads of leafy greens are generous and simply garnished with fresh herbs, shards of thinly scraped cheeses and tart vinaigrettes.
Gluten-free pasta is an option and half-orders allow you to have a pasta and a secondi (entree). We tried orecchiette with spicy pork sausage and broccoli rabe. The pasta, tiny ears of tenderness, was a tad overcooked, but the bitter greens played well off the seasoned sausage and the light stock-based sauce kept this dish from being heavy or cloying.
A daily risotto also is served (MP).
‘Cesca makes the focaccia in house and it is a good representation. Normandy Farm also provides breads.
I was delighted to see whole, grilled branzino ($36) on the menu. This Mediterranean sea bass is grilled and finished with herbs, lemon and sea salt. It is simplicity of the sea with its richly flavored flesh and stuffing of lemon and rosemary.
Entrees can get pricy: $41 for a veal chop; $52 for steak Fiorentina. But the quantity is there for the price. A 14-ounce grilled pork chop ($28) was succulent. It was drizzled with a balsamic reduction and surrounded with white, green and purple cauliflower. A mantle of bacon girdled the chop and this pig on pig was unnecessary.
The menu offers something for everyone. I liked the fish sampler on the menu: a variety of local fish, simply grilled (MP). Steaks, chops and seafood hitch all appetites.
Our server was well-informed on the menu and graciously offered tastings of wines we were not familiar with. The wine list is a good one and reflects Mazzola’s experience in the industry. The entire peninsula of Italy is well-represented.
As the restaurant fills and the wine flows, it can get noisy, but, hey, our restaurants are not sanctuaries and Italians at the table tend to be robusto.
The kitchen offers a dessert sampler ($12) and it is chef’s choice. What was interesting is the cannoli shell for the dessert ($5) was different from the mini-cannoli served with the sampler that also included panna cotta with berry coulis and tiramisu. The latter, a dessert I am so over, was very nice. The panna cotta needed no whipped vapid cream, and the cannolis, in general, were missing the culinary punctuation marks of candied citron.
‘Cesca still seems to be finding her Lowcountry rudder. Seats at the table are the bottom line of a restaurant’s success, but distance will better serve the landscape in the dining room.
The staff, at the time of our visit, made a point to visit each table. The chef, however, had his favorites.
‘Cesca will offer you an eating adventure, one that is costly if you order from antipasti to dolci but one that can be most reasonable if your tavola shares. It is a sophisticated spot retrofitted for your dining pleasure where the kitchen needs to mind its “timing.”