It was about three years ago that it opened. A delightfully charming and very respectful redo of an early 19th Century home just outside of San Miguel de Allende’s prime Centro. I loved the look of the place. It was classy but still casual, two traits that are tough to combine.
I liked that the restaurant was owner-driven and the owner was omni-present. At every other new upscale restaurant in this town it seemed the owner was AWOL. I thought the owner of this new restaurant was perhaps a little too confident in the kitchen. There was nothing terribly exciting or imaginative coming from the stoves. It was honest, flavorful food. It was traditional. It was old-fashioned. Which was not necessarily bad for most people but not necessarily good for a follower of food fashion like myself.
The restaurant was called Casa Nostra. I once owned a business called Our House. So how could I not like the name of the place? I liked the name of the owner as well. Marco Massarotti. Sounded like a Formula One driver. Wouldn’t I love to have a handle like that?
As much as I loved the ambiance and liked the owner, it was almost a year before I returned to Casa Nostra. I didn’t think the menu was quite there. There weren’t enough dishes on it that I didn’t eat regularly at home.
But when I did return, the menu was a little bigger and considerably better. And more so the next time. And the time after that…well, you know where I’m going.
These days, I consider Casa Nostra to be one of San Miguel’s very best restaurants and I was thrilled, the last time I was there, to see it busier than any restaurant I’ve been in this entire winter.
1. No scrimping on ingredients.
Casa Nostra buys its beef at Rancho 17; I buy my beef at Rancho 17. Enough said. Well almost enough said. I also should add that good ingredients aren’t necessarily expensive ingredients. The two featured mains at Casa Nostra are both osso buco, which use shank, one of the cheapest but tastiest and tenderest parts of the animal.
2. Driven by a personality.
Almost all successful restaurants have a central figure, a single person that the restaurant rotates around. Sometimes it’s a chef. Sometimes it’s someone out on the floor. Usually they’re an owner. In San Miguel, there’s Max at Tio Lucas. Antonio at Firenze. Aleysha at Chikatana. Noren at La Frontera. Mario at Mario’s. Eduardo at Rustica. And there’s the one I can consider the best of them all at working the crowd. The one who does it with style, wisdom, panache, care, passion, grace and knowledge. Yes, I agree he should get rid of the eyebrow jewellery, but there’s no one more magnetic than Marco Massarotti when he’s out on the floor.
I complimented Marco on his amazing abilities to schmooze the last time I was at Casa Nostra. His response: “I think it’s because I love being out here. I get so much from giving so much.”
3. A warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Atmosphere. It’s a tough word to define. But when I get into some deep thinking about restaurants, it’s probably the strongest magnet there is for return appearances. “Hey, remember the great time (note: nothing to do with food or service) we had at XYZ, let’s go back there again.”
In San Miguel, you can go deep, to down-and-out dives, with lines (please don’t ask for details) drawn on the top of paper towel dispensers, or you can live in the lap of luxury where your linen serviettes are gracefully disposed of after every course. I like both. Almost equally. But my favorite is what I call upscale casual (wish I had a better term). Where the decor and the aura is very classy. But I feel comfortable in my very crassy jeans.
I once took my father proudly to a restaurant in Toronto called the Danish Food Centre and said to him, “Look, Dad, we’re using George Jensen flatware”. His response, “You don’t eat the cutlery, Son.”
My Dad was right. Sort of. But when I’m at Casa Nostra and I climb the stairs, checking out so many nooks and crannies where I might like to dine before I reach the third (and first outdoor) floor (the fourth can be a little breezy), then checking out the waiter’s apparel, the plates, the glasses and, yes, the mid-Century modern (but not quite Jensen) flatware I think this is where I belong. This is the place for my frayed Walmart jeans and my Tuesday Market shirt. This is where I feel very, very comfortable.
4. It’s all about timing.
When my mother used to walk in to a restaurant, she always had the same request: “Seat us at a table where I’ll be served by your best waiter, please.”
My mother liked to be pampered. And so do I. Being married to a chef, I eat very well at home. So the big difference between eating at home and eating out is the service.
Good waiters are warm, polite and friendly (but not overly friendly). Good waiters know the menu and the ingredients of each dish. Most importantly though, good waiters have impeccable timing, knowing when you are ready to order, when your glass needs refilling and when it is time to remove your plate.
The waiters at Casa Nostra handle glasses by the stems, flatware by the handles. They know that if you’ve asked to share a dish, it’s placed in the centre of the table with appropriate serving utensils. The big difference I notice with the service at Casa Nostra though is that the waiters always seem to be there, never hovering, but always within a short wave.
5. A well-executed menu.
When I eat out, I want food that I can’t or don’t get at home. Most often that means Asian cuisine. So Casa Nostra is a little different from my norm. Marco Massarotti is Swiss as is, to some degree, Casa Nostra’s cuisine. Now when I think of Swiss cuisine, I think of two dishes, fondue and fondue. But I think that cheese or chocolate fondue is a bit been there, done that, more a social event that should happen in someone’s home and I don’t think I’ve ordered it in a restaurant since years started with a one and a nine.
Casa Nostra does have fondue on its menu. But it also has a lot of dishes that didn’t originate in Switzerland but on the other side of their many borders. Italian is the dominant cuisine. And there are hints of German, French and even a dash of Mexican.
I get the impression that Marco (“I’m a cook not a chef”) Massarotti is, perhaps, spending less time in the kitchen, spending more time out on the floor and allowing chef Erick Sanchez a little more creativity, a move that I think is contributing to Casa Nostra’s food getting better and better.
The highlights of the menu for me are the flammenkueechen (you can find more about Alsace’s answer to the pizza at http://dondayinsma.com/2020/03/18/flammekueche-has-arrived-in-san-miguel/), vegetarian jicama tacos, the fresh-not-dried fagottini with duck leg, the osso buco, and a perfect chocolate mousse.
6. Keeping the price of wine reasonable.
I saw a wine recently that was marked up 500% in a San Miguel restaurant. Yes, a $190 wine priced at $1200. I think that is disgraceful, disgusting. I wanted to make a scene. But I didn’t. I just left.
The price of wine is extremely important to me. Because I always drink wine when I go out for dinner. So if my wine is only half the price, I’m able to eat out almost twice as often.
I know the restaurant biz well enough to know that the expenses go on plates, the profits come in glasses. And I know that standard mark-ups have risen in the last decade or two. But there are limits. And my limit is 200%.
I checked out a few of the bottles on the concise but nice wine list at Casa Nostra. In every case, the price was less than my 200% ceiling. I know of not one other upscale restaurant in this town where that’s the case.
7. If you tell them, they will come.
Instead of drinking wine, I was listening to whine the other night.
“We were voted one of Mexico’s top 50 restaurants and we’re empty. I don’t get it.”
I thought of suggesting that they lower their wine mark-up. But I knew the prime reason why they were suffering. Their website was gone; they’d neglected to renew it. They hadn’t added a post on their Facebook site in months. The wrong hours were on their Trip Advisor site. I had never seen them ever put one single thing on local social media. Nothing. Ever.
The most important place in a restaurant is not always the kitchen. Not always the dining area. It’s in front of the computer or even just a phone. If you don’t tell people you’re good, no one else will.
When Marco Massarotti has something new on his menu, I read about it. When Casa Nostra recently added takeout fresh pasta and pierogis, he sent me an email. And perhaps the thing I like and respect most, when Marco and his partner Mariana eat at a San Miguel restaurant that they have absolutely no financial interest in but enjoy, they’ll post about it on my website.
Marketing is just as, perhaps even more, important than any of the first six steps that I think is essential to a restaurant’s success. It’s also perhaps where Casa Nostra shines brighter than any of the other restaurants that have arrived in San Miguel de Allende during the last three years.
Three years ago, Casa Nostra was an OK restaurant. Two years ago, Casa Nostra was a good restaurant. A year ago, Casa Nostra was a very good restaurant. I’ll let you decide what it is now.
Casa Nostra is located at Terraplén #8 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open Wednesday and Thursday from 6:00 to 10:00 pm, Friday and Saturday from 2:00 to 11:00 pm, Sunday from 1:30 to 8:00 pm.