Indeed -- we didn't get ptomaine, after all. On the other hand, if mediocrity were all we wanted, we could have saved some shoe leather and merely popped a Lean Cuisine into the lunchroom microwave.
No, when diners plunk down the dough for a pleasant sit-down meal, they deserve a little bang for their buck. Too bad, then, that all we got out of Castaldi's that noon hour was one big shrug.
Not that the surroundings aren't pleasant enough. Apparently designed to channel the urbane charms of a 1940s spaghetti house, the low-ceilinged, softly lit space feels comfy and cozy, even as it fills up almost to capacity during weekday lunch hours. Simple schoolhouse chairs pull up to white-cloth-draped tables sporting white paper toppers, old black-and-white "family photos" line the walls, and in the background, Dino croons the usual Italian-American standards in a voice as dark and bittersweet as a fine Amarone.
We give the designers credit, too, for tying the restaurant (owned by native North Carolinian Neil Castaldi, and now his corporate HQ) into its Tower City setting, with walls of windows overlooking the third-level promenade, a sophisticated-looking lounge facing out onto Prospect Avenue, and a voluptuous marble staircase curving down to the second-level market -- which, incidentally, is less "market" than fast-food stop, with a menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas by the slice, and gelato, either for carryout or for on-site, bus-your-own-table consumption.
Besides the "two-venues-in-one" device, Castaldi's other hook is its crew of singing servers, who can be counted on to belt out a repertoire of melodious show tunes, Italian love songs, and at least one or two rounds of "Happy Birthday" to the accompaniment of a pianist at a black baby grand. Just don't look for the revue during the noon hour: For now, at least, live entertainment is limited to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings from 6 to 10 p.m.
Still, both the lunch and dinner menus overflow with popular Italian-American dishes that, by all rights, should prove just as entertaining. Among the broad selection of first courses, diners will find calamari, minestrone, crumb-coated mozzarella fritto, and individual pizzas. Pasta options range from simple spaghetti marinara to manicotti, gnocchi, and lasagna. At lunch, a half-dozen or so sandwiches include Italian sausage topped in onions and roasted peppers, as well as a vegetarian offering of grilled portobello, eggplant, and mozzarella. At dinner, the sandwiches are replaced with more than a dozen chicken, seafood, and beef alternatives, including such standards as chicken Marsala, veal piccata, and risotto di mare, made with shrimp and scallops. There's also a long list of dolci, a moderately priced wine menu, and the option, at dinner, of ordering "family style," in the Buca di Beppo tradition. Portions are massive, sharing is not frowned upon, and a reasonably conservative diner can get in and out for less than $30, a glass of Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Zinfandel ($7.25) included.
Still, we suspect that the reason most guests leave Castaldi's with boxed leftovers piled up like Lincoln Logs has as much to do with the quality of the food as the quantity. In fact, with the exceptions of the delicious garlic-buttered baguettes (served warm, with a light, grassy extra-virgin olive oil), the salads (uniformly on the limp side, but nicely appointed), and the desserts (apparently, the restaurant's strong suit), virtually nothing was good enough to inspire a clean plate.
At lunch, that included the thick, tender-crusted margherita pizza, topped with thin slices of pale tomato, melted mozzarella, and a chiffonade of fresh basil. We could clearly see that there was also something on the pie that looked like pesto; however, there was none of pesto's gutsy, garlicky rush of flavors. Worse yet, the 'za's little bottom had been charred black, making "carbon" the predominant flavor note.
As for our grilled veggie-and-mozzarella sandwich, it was reasonably well stuffed and offered a pleasant blend of subtle flavors. Still, it needed something sharp and sassy, like the promised pesto mayonnaise, to bring its subtleties to life; too bad, then, that the mayo was indiscernibly bland.
A giant lunchtime portion of lasagna was probably the best of the bunch, with plenty of ground beef, ricotta, and mozzarella. Nonetheless, "limp" is too weak a word to describe the texture of the lasagna noodles; the meaty "Bolognese" sauce lacked richness and depth; and the promised meatballs were missing in action.
But if lunch was ho-hum, a Friday-night dinner was downright disappointing, beginning with a flat-footed version of minestrone (interspersed with lengths of gelatinous penne, a few navy beans, and a piece or two of carrot) and continuing through a bizarre interpretation of chicken Marsala, with broad slices of tender breast meat and a tangle of overcooked angel-hair pasta awash in a dark, viscous sauce that smelled like Kikkoman and tasted like Liquid Smoke.
In comparison, a fairly average treatment of crisply fried calamari rings and tentacles was a treat, particularly for its bowl of chunky, sweet-tart marinara (robust, but not, as the menu described it, "spicy"). But it was back to Dullsville with an entrée of (at this point, predictably) overdone fusilli. Despite a wealth of what should have been zesty add-ons -- sun-dried tomato, pesto, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and a bit of spinach, among them -- the flavor was boringly bland; we tried to liven it up with salt, pepper, and lots of grated cheese, but even then it barely hummed, let alone sang, with flavor.
A good-looking, stunningly tender, 16-ounce rib-eye (ordered medium rare, served entirely rare) also barely budged the Flav-O-Meter, despite the menu's claim that it had been marinated in herbs and garlic. Worse, it was tremendously fatty: Although, like many enthusiastic eaters, we're almost embarrassingly fond of a well-marbled steak, this one exceeded even our tolerance. Sides of roasted red potatoes and frozen beans and carrots were properly cooked, but almost entirely unseasoned.
If the kitchen struggles with savory flavorings, though, it does very well with the sweets. Luxuriously moist and creamy (though a little light on the espresso flavor), cool homemade tiramisu slid down like silk. A tidy, multilayered lemon cake, interspersed with whipped cream and tangy lemon preserves and garnished with fresh lemon slices, practically high-kicked its way across our taste buds. And two freshly stuffed cannoli, their rich ricotta filling piqued with tiny chocolate chips, were as good as any from a Murray Hill bakery. Just watch out if you decide to order cappuccino. "So, you're gonna make me work, eh?" grumbled our waitress. "All right then, I'll be back in five minutes." When she finally reappeared with the coffee, she tried to pass off her comments as a joke; we couldn't help feeling, though, that we had inconvenienced her.
Meantime, three singing servers ran through their repertoire for a handful of dinner guests. Neither amazingly talented nor howlingly bad, the trio at least provided a pleasant distraction from the food. We just seem to have forgotten what they sang.