The Menus of Madison County: Graziano’s Casa Mia

To kickoff the first weekend back from Fall Break, I wanted to find some Italian food that actually lived up to its name; rubbery pizza and overcooked pasta drowning in bottled sauce just weren’t going to cut it. After some light research, I found Graziano’s Casa Mia (409 N. Peterboro Street, Canastota, NY), a 40-minute drive from campus. The distance pushed my ideal driving limits, but with a bold website claiming that it is “regarded by more than a few persons as one of the finest Italian-American restaurants in the world,” I knew I had to taste for myself. I recruited a few others who were also willing to go the distance for intense Italian food and we set off.

Driving at night in Central New York (even on the rare occasion when it isn’t raining or snowing) can be a bit of a challenge because of the near-total darkness, but don’t worry: Graziano’s large neon sign will greet you from a considerable distance as a veritable beacon of hope.

We walked in and immediately noticed we were the youngest patrons there by approximately 50 years. In my experience with Italian restaurants (and my 88-year old Italian grandmother would agree), this was an excellent sign. The shining faces of Muhammad Ali and Frank Sinatra also greeted us from their large wall-sized photo collages (Canastota is also home to a boxing museum, and I don’t think Old Blue Eyes needs any further explanation). We passed by a display case selling “genuine Austrian crystal” jewelry as well as dozens of photos of various members of the Graziano family; a trellis with plastic grapes hung above the door of the kitchen entrance.

Finally settled at a table and overcoming a sort of visual sensory overload, I turned my attention to the well-stocked menu. After reading that Graziano’s was also an inn (with 31 rooms including the Jacuzzi Suite – oh dang), the food received my undivided attention.

First, we went for a bottle of red wine, enjoying the complimentary hot garlic bread our waitress brought out as well as our salads that came with the main courses. Mixed greens, marinated red peppers and black olives adorned this nice start to the meal. All that was missing from the scene was an accordion player serenading our table.

Our main courses arrived in a flurry of tomato sauce. Two of my dining companions decided on seafood dishes: shrimp fra diavolo and seafood “Joe Graziano,” respectively. Fra diavolo literally means “brother devil” in Italian and refers to a spicy sauce; this one in particular was tomato based. Despite our waitress’s warning that this dish was very spicy, my dining companion thought it lacked heat and he added copious amounts of crushed red pepper flakes. Seafood “Joe Graziano” was a medley of shrimp, scallops and fresh herbs in a red sauce. Both of my dining companions said their shrimp and scallops were perfectly cooked, which can sometimes be difficult to accomplish when seafood is served in a hot sauce, let alone being hundreds of miles from the ocean.

My third dining companion decided on the light combination of lasagna with a side of meatballs. He graciously let me sample this Italian staple and it was superb. A mixture of cheeses, ground meat and red sauce created a holy trinity of flavor nestled in al dente noodles. The meatballs were light and soft bits of perfection that would have made a glorious meal on their own.

I landed on veal scaloppini – a very politically incorrect meal but, nonetheless, one of my favorites. Pieces of veal mingled happily with mushrooms, peppers and onions in a rich pool of tomatoes. Spaghetti and marinara sauce waited patiently for me on the side.

Although we all came to the consensus that Graziano’s tomato sauce was a little on the sweet side (probably due to lots of tomato paste and onion) and may have benefited from a dose of red pepper flakes or wine, we left Graziano’s wanting to join the family (we decided to skip dessert after we learned they ran out of cannolis). It is definitely worth the schlep for some authentic Italian food and unorthodox decorations. And if the drive back seems too daunting, there is always the Jacuzzi Suite.