March 11 2009 12:00 AM

Falsetta’s Casa Nova still knows way to diners’ hearts


In a kitchen on Lansing’s southwest side, large rings of onion are hand-dipped in a homemade batter before transforming into some of the finest golden brown delights found around town. That’s one way to keep a restaurant humming for nearly six decades, and for Falsetta’s Casa Nova, established in 1951, the winning equation has been great atmosphere and even better food.

Back in the days of Harry S Truman, Bill Falsetta Sr. concocted and perfected — among other recipes — marinara, stuffed manicotti, lasagna and Casa Nova’s specialty: pizza.

The marinara and meat sauce, batters, dips and many other ingredients (the cheese is even hand-grated) are prepped fresh every morning, many times supervised by the 88-year-old Falsetta himself. “He still comes in every day and makes the sauce, cuts up the onions for the onion rings,” manager Chad Hines says. “It really is a family atmosphere, relaxed and not so corporate.”

Falsetta’s has migrated over the years, beginning on Mt. Hope Road, moving to Logan Street long before it was Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and then settling into its current location on Waverly Road near Michigan Avenue 15 years ago.

The Italian focus has been nudged aside for today’s more eclectic palate, but Hines says the classics remain. The focus on good eats has produced a loyal crop of regulars and continues to attract new devotees. “People are so loyal to the food. They still love the same things they got back in 1960. People still say the pizza’s the best in town,” Hines says, going on to claim Falsetta’s introduced the dish to Lansing. “It’s the first place to ever have pizza in Lansing," he says. “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.”

But pizza is just one menu item. The spinach manicotti ($9.49), a house specialty of twin pasta tubes filled with ricotta, swims in a creamy cheese and spinach sauce, punctuated by tangy Romano cheese and topped with mozzarella fired just until it produces that perfect, thin layer of lightbrown char.

A hearty, homemade tomato meat sauce, used for everything from a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs to baked mostaccioli, is punctuated with chunks of onion and a distinct, can’t-find-it-anywhere-else flavor.

And the pizza is so good, Falsetta’s keeps those who crave its tender-but-sturdy crust and balanced proportion of cheese, toppings and sauce traveling back from near and far.

The meat lover’s ($11.99-$17.29) layers sausage first on top of a crust that holds up well under a substantial pile of toppings. Next comes a thin but potent layer of sauce, then a thick blanket of cheese topped with pepperoni, ham and crumbled bits of bacon. You really shouldn’t have any business craving saturated fats for weeks after eating a few slices, but the guilt is worth every bite.

The gooier spinach cheese pizza ($9.95- 14.95), sans tomatoes, has a buttery crust that compliments the light but rich alfredolike sauce, like a hammock and a nap.

Falsetta’s does a brisk pizza business in its dining room and takeout, and it also offers a take & bake pizza, par-cooked with requested ingredients and sold with baking instructions. “We’ve got people that come from Grand Rapids, Chicago — people that had been here for so long, they stop for pizza when they drive by town,” Hines says. “They get the half bakes, take them home ... they seem to travel from everywhere for the pizzas.”

Outside of the Italian sections of Falsetta’s large menu, a picky eater will find plenty of options, from bourbon glazed sirloin and pork chops, one-pound lobster tail, and chicken and veal options to a large selection of sandwiches, subs and burgers ($5.59-$7.99) — perfect accompaniments to when you’ve bellied up to the substantial bar that dominates the front of the restaurant.

Service keeps the gears running smoothly at Casa Nova, too. Don’t see something you crave on the menu? While Falsetta’s doesn’t do breakfast, if you just have to have some scrambled eggs and toast, ask, and if the ingredients are in house, they’ll cook whatever you want. Loyalty goes both ways, Hines says. “We’ll take care of you.”

138 S. Waverly Road, Lansing. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday & Saturday, closed Sunday. (517) 323-9181.