Three years ago, it looked like what it was: a weathered colonial-revival house, most recently used as a doctor’s office, on a lonely corner four blocks past the heart of Collingswood’s restaurant row.
But more than $500,000 in renovations later, Casona (meaning “big house” in Spanish) has in effect extended restaurant row. The place pulses with Latin beats and overflows with patrons feasting on Cuban and South American specialties, some updated with intriguing twists.
Ceiling fans over the wraparound porch sustain the tropical mood even in winter, when the area is enclosed and heated. Inside, the walls are burnished in the bold, warm hues of plantains, mangoes, and red berries. Black-and-white photos of old Cuba hang on the walls.
Lawrence Grillo, who formerly ran Tierra Columbiano and Mixto in Philadelphia, shares ownership with Mark and Michele Infantado as well as credit for the masterful renovation. But it is the confident cooking of executive chef Carmelo Petit that will keep people coming back. Raised in Venezuela, Petit counts many of the items on the menu as favorites from his childhood.
Starters set the festive tone: a martini glass of spicy, citrusy shrimp seviche garnished with crispy plantains; deep-fried empanadas stuffed with moist, garlic-tinged chicken and Chihuahua cheese; and an over-the-top but wonderful platter of plantains heaped with shredded pork, ground beef, roasted peppers, olives, and melted Swiss cheese.
The ropa vieja, a main course, was tender and flavorful in its traditional setting of garlic, onions, and spicy tomato sauce. Excellent pulled pork was updated with a tangy citrus marinade. Churrasco was another winner—skirt steak marinated in rosemary and olive oil, grilled to perfection and served with crispy yucca fries and a wild mushroom sauce.
The kitchen is still working out kinks: The paella was disappointing. Though it was made with deliciously aromatic saffron rice flavored with lobster stock, the chicken breast, chorizo, scallops, shrimp, and lobster were overcooked and dry.
Service did not always live up to the cooking. We often waited too long between courses, and one of our empty appetizer dishes remained on the table well after dessert. Speaking of which, don’t waste your time with the banal carrot or chocolate cakes, or even the Key lime pie or the flan. The tres leches cake—similar to an Italian rum cake, but soaked in three different milks—is the only dessert that matters, and Petit’s rendition is lovely, sublime, and creamy.