Casey's is a great little family restaurant, a real charmer, with a friendly and efficient staff and an accessible and affordable menu of pub fare and Italian-American specialties. Taken in from the road, where it lies just inside the Beltway, it doesn't look like much, just another county tavern. But it will take you about 10 seconds once inside the dining room to conclude two things: that the meal is going to turn out just fine and that everyone already eating there is a regular.
Early in the evening, there are a few tables of older diners, a group of women celebrating a birthday and a kid dining out with his grandmother. Later, families come in, as well as foursomes of casually dressed adults.
Some might remember this place as the old Sarandos, a Parkville fixture for decades. It was turned into an Irish pub named Casey's a few years ago, but since late last year - when it was purchased by Casey Brooks and his family - it's been a whole new Casey's. You still walk into a central vestibule, where a friendly college-age guy points you to the bar on the right or the renovated dining room on the left. It's not a fancy room, or even especially pretty. TVs are on the walls, but the sound is kept off until the kitchen closes. It is a very clean and cared-for room, with photographs on the wall of Brooks' grandparents - former longtime Little Italy residents and dancing stars June and Drapey Santoro. They've been dancing together for 60 years and recently won a trip to Las Vegas in a local version of Dancing With the Stars.
The Italian fare is taken from Santoro family recipes. These are simple things most people like for dinner, such as sausage, pepper and onion; baked ziti with meatballs; and various versions of pasta Alfredo (with broccoli, chicken, crabmeat or seafood). Our choice, shrimp with penne, was a good one. It was served, as are many offerings, in what looks like a large ceramic mixing bowl, with fresh, tail-on shrimp over well-seasoned, firm pasta tubes. The sauce tended more toward a classic marinara than it did a vodka sauce, but it looked and tasted homemade.
The in-house, personal-size pizzas here are a good choice, too. The rectangular pizza arrives on a kind of cooling rack, which helps to keep its thin crust nice and crispy. Choices for toppings are straightforward - the white pizza is topped simply with ricotta, mozzarella and large florets of broccoli. A baked-in-a-bowl version, the "upside down" pizza, is available, too.
Instead of it, we went for another big wonder, the chicken pot pie, which looks like something out of Gulliver's Travels. It's as big as half a regulation basketball, but the shell is only about a quarter filled (thank goodness, or we'd still be there). When you break the brown, flaky crust with the tines of a fork, a funnel of steam escapes, and down below are the gooey and savory mixings, loaded with hunks of white-meat chicken. Keep it in mind for some cold Sunday night this winter.
We had good luck with just about everything - appetizers like the generous-looking half-rack of the tender house ribs, coated with a slightly sweet barbecue sauce; handsomely arranged mussels in a strong garlic butter sauce, which were big and pretty specimens but just on the tough side; a thick and gently seasoned cupful of cream of crab soup, with chunks of snowy crab meat; and crispy onion rings that come stacked on a dowel like a child's toy.
It turned out that the friendly "college-age" guy who greeted us and seated us was Casey Brooks. He's 23. Galling, yes, but Brooks has years of experience (Little Italy, the Charcoal Grill) along with management training at Baltimore International College. He's kept the menu simple but satisfying and best of all, has made sure the place stays senior- and family-friendly through dinner time. Great start.
ON THE MENU
* Onion rings - ($6)
* 1/2 rack ribs - ($9)
* Cup of cream of crab soup - ($5)
* Chicken pot pie - ($12)
* Shrimp and penne in vodka sauce - ($15)
* White pizza - ($8)
* Baked ziti and two meatballs - ($10)
CASEY'S BAR AND RESTAURANT
Where : 1742 E. Joppa Road
Open: 11 a.m.--9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon--9:30 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover, Amex
Food: *** (3 STARS)
Ambience: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)
Service: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)