Wondering if you can get waiters in classic tuxedo-style uniforms, white tablecloths, a mural on the wall and magnificent red sauce in a pleasantly dark and retro Italian joint in the desert? Yes, you can. You just must make a reservation at Castelli’s Ristorante in California’s Coachella Valley on Highway 111 in Palm Desert.
It starts with the ambience, then you get hit with the garlic bread from a traditional and formal server and, just like that, you are off to a remarkable dining experience. So, let’s move right to the service. You are catapulted back in time with the formality and care these servers bring your experience.
You get the feeling they’ve done this “forever” and can anticipate your dining needs. It’s relaxed dining because you don’t have to work at being served. I appreciate that when I go out to dinner and if you do, this is the place to go. It is formal without being ornate and extravagant. Like most places in the area, you can dress pretty casually. It is the desert after all.
The food: OMG that bread! I, without embarrassment, never hesitate to get refills on it. Spoil yourself, it is worth it. It is delicious on its own or alongside a starter salad. Notated on the menu as broken by hand, the lettuces they use are always crisp and fresh. Go with their Italian dressing (shocker I’d recommend it here right?) or if you love Caesar, it is worth that indulgence on a salad for their dressing. I remember the salads there and that is not usually something I think about after leaving a restaurant!
On to the mains. I challenge anyone to be unable to find something on the menu. They offer everything from pastas and risottos (obviously!) to multiple chicken, pork and seafood options to stunning veal, lamb, and beef dishes. I’ve done the rack of lamb and sampled the steak – all perfectly cooked (I am picky and need it all medium-rare to be happy!).
The steak I ordered was the “Bistecca Pepe,” a New York Strip. While I adored the sherry wine sauce with the steak, I would still recommend going for pasta and trying those sauces. My personal favorite dish: cannelloni. With this dish you get both the marinara and a super-light, luxuriously creamy white sauce. The cannelloni itself is homemade and the veal mixture is smooth and silky, with lots of flavor.
The wine list is extensive, with plenty imported from Italy, so you can order a perfect pairing by the glass for each course or a bottle for the table. Side note: there is a small bar on one side of the restaurant if you just want to pop in for a drink and some ambience.
There may be some regulars that do this from what I’ve seen there however, in my opinion, you need to go there to eat, not to nosh. If you only want a salad or appetizer, go somewhere else- this is an all-in experience and it would be a true waste to not sample something from every part of the menu, including dessert. They have everything from home-made chocolate mousse to gelato. And, of course, espresso options, with or without alcohol added.
My parents have lived in Palm Desert for several years and the area has no shortage of Italian restaurants, but this one is so classic Italian American and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve tried. Only about 25 minutes from Palm Springs, it remains my favorite. Being in the Palm Springs area, you may not be surprised when I tell you what I sadly discovered the first year I learned about this place, it’s closed for the summer and re-opens with the “season” as snow-birds flock back to the desert.