Wine and cheese go together like peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots, steak and potatoes. And just off a busy Hell’s Kitchen corner, a charming little wine bar devotes itself to marrying ‘the holy duo’ through a long and worthy wine list and a cheese-centric menu. And thus, in a city with wine bars in every neighborhood, Casellula is no ordinary wine bar. With a name where cheese comes before wine, the focus at Casellula isn’t only on the nectar of Dionysus, but also on cheeses of all shapes, sizes, and stinks (yes, stinks), used in all sorts of different ways.
The tiny space just off 9th Avenue is cozy. Exposed brick covers two walls, and the one wall left free is bare white. Near the entrance is a crowded bar, simple wood, with bottles of wine clusted on shelves and quality beer on tap. The rest of the space is reserved for seated dining – the best tables are those pressed up against the windows, where you can watch all sorts of characters rush by on 52nd St. With soaring ceilings and an entire wall lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, Casellula creates an illusion of space, and so people crowd into corners and cluster at the bar. As the night goes on, the sound level rises to a pleasant roar – the sounds of happily satiated people reverberate, laughter ricochets, wine glasses clink and tinkle. It’s a charming and mellow sort of place, where it’s hard not to enjoy yourself.
At Casellula, the menu focuses on cheese (a no-brainer for a place opened by the guy who used to run the cheese program at the Modern) and showcases up to three dozen varieties at one time in all sorts of ways. There’s a gooey and decadent grilled cheese, served on buttery and crusty bread with thin wisps of bresaola and three varieties of cheese; it’s nutty, savory, salty, and everything you could want from an American classic all-dressed-up. There is a mac n’ cheese (of course) of comte and goat cheese with speckles of bacon and sweet caramelized onions. There is straight-up grilled camembert for the cheese purist, served hot and oozing with roasted tomatoes and bacon. For ‘lighter’ options, the kitchen offers a petite ricotta crostini; crispy slices of baguette topped with airy ricotta, floral orange blossom honey, and earthy bites of hazelnut, it’s so simple and yet so satisfying. If you’re not a cheese person, don’t despair – the chicken liver pate, served with a layer of creme fraiche in a little bowl, is rich and creamy without being over-powering; and the kitchen offers everything from hot n’spicy adobo chicken wings to fish taco ceviche, a goose breast reuben, endive salad, and a rabbit & mushroom pie.
Casellula is essentially an homage to cheese, and cheese is the star here. It’s in almost every dish, oozing out of grilled cheese, fluffed atop crostini, or just on its own. Yet, aside from the cheese, one of the greatest things about Casellula is how utterly un-snobby it is. Although it’s a cheese and wine cafe, beer is beloved here as well. The young and hip staff is laid back (almost too much so on occasion); the food is accessible without sacrificing an ounce of quality; and there’s no need to dress up to show up. Casellula is a refreshingly relaxed hitter on the New York wine bar that maintains it’s cool without sacrificing an iota of food or wine quality.
Perfect For: first dates, wine & dessert, cheese freaks, catching up with your girlfriends, mellow after-work drinks