A hidden gem for Italian cuisine

Vinny Marino's Brickhouse Cafe stands roadside on Route 109 in Dedham and with its warm light beckons those seeking dinner. Inside, the restaurant features a recently renovated bar area with supersize TVs and a small dining room with just 10 tables for dining in (reservations are a good idea).

It has a cozy feel and an Italian-influenced atmosphere and menu - not surprising given that owner Vinny Marino's parents hail from Sicily and many of the restaurant's dishes are based on their recipes. The most popular dishes are Italian restaurant standbys: chicken and veal Parmigiana, according to general manager Kevin Geary . And he added that seafood dishes are also big hits. (The restaurant obtains its seafood from Captain Marden's.)

While plenty of regulars dine at the Brickhouse Cafe, Geary said he often hears from people who say they have driven by time after time and finally decided to stop in. After the first visit, they keep returning to this hidden gem. Regular diners often check out the restaurant's Facebook and Twitter pages to see what specials are being offered and make sure to stop in for their favorites, he said. The stuffed calamari usually draws a crowd.

Geary said the restaurant also has great neighbors, who provide parking at the Dexter Academy crew launch lot across the street and in the MacFarlane Energy lot next door. There is also street parking on Breede Terrace.

When we visited recently, we were warmly greeted and shown to a table in the dining room. A small fireplace in the corner provided some ambience, as did the din of surrounding diners - every table was occupied. And with most tables covered with plates piled high with food, aromas filled the dining room. Our waitress was friendly and attentive, and I think she could tell we were new to the restaurant, so she took the time to explain menu items and side choices to us.

Antipasti, zuppe, and insalata menus offer several first-course options, many of them seafood-heavy, like fritto misto (fried calamari, scallops, and shrimp) and clams Posillipo (countneck clams with tomatoes, basil, and pancetta).

We shared a Caesar salad ($10), the Brickhouse pizza ($13), and a side order of meatballs ($7) to start. The Caesar salad arrived in a bread bowl - but not the sort that immediately comes to mind. Instead the bowl was created from baked pizza dough. (The chicken and broccoli with penne is also served in this sort of bowl.) It was filled to the top with dressed lettuce, cheese, and croutons and seemed like more than one person could ever eat as a first course. It was perfect for sharing and would make an excellent dinner option bolstered with some chicken or steak tips.

The Brickhouse pizza, with its pleasantly chewy thin crust, came covered with ricotta cheese, a bit of San Marzano tomato sauce, and plenty of crumbled meatballs and sweet Italian sausage. The crust held up well against the heavy toppings, while the ricotta added a creamy yet slightly gritty layer.

The meatballs, both those on the pizza and the side order, stole the show. Those on the plate were about the size of tennis balls, tender and well-seasoned. I wanted to polish off the whole plate, but knew I had to save room for the next course.

Main courses at the Brickhouse Cafe are divided into pasta, pesce (seafood), grilla (grilled items), pollo (chicken), and vitello (veal) categories on the menu. The steak tips ($18) have a reputation for being really good, and they lived up to that reputation, with a shiny lacquer of flavorful barbecue sauce and tender meat. (Lemon-mint sauce is another option.) They were served with a choice of vegetable and mashed potatoes, rice pilaf, or french fries.

Chicken piccata ($19), a classic with thin, moist chicken cutlets in lemon-butter sauce resting atop a bed of pasta, was lemony and bright and speckled with briny capers. And the rigatoni a la vodka ($17) was generously heaped in its bowl, coated with just the right amount of tomato vodka cream sauce, and studded with pancetta and peas, which added a fresh, green element.

Those seeking lighter options will find calorie counts listed online for some of the fish dishes and the chicken verdicchio, a pasta dish with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, mushrooms, and a white wine sauce.

And if you are not counting calories, there is always dessert. The dessert menu ranges from cannoli to cheesecake to crème brûlée. The cheesecake that particular night was a Boston cream cheesecake ($8) that had layers of regular and chocolate cheesecake topped with shiny ganache.

If you would rather watch a game or play trivia while you eat, you can sit at the bar and enjoy the full menu there. The bar was redesigned to be more comfortable for dining, Geary said. In addition to the regular menu, there is a late-night menu available at the bar during live music on Wednesdays, trivia on Thursdays, and any late-running Patriots, Sox, and Bruins games.

That menu features fun bar bites like chicken Parmigiana sliders and toasted ravioli. Geary said he hopes a regular late-night menu will be offered starting in the spring.

In addition to dinner and bar bites, the restaurant recently started breakfast and lunch service. Geary said they decided to stick with traditional favorites like waffles and pancakes for breakfast, but have a few Italian dishes as well, such as frittatas. Sandwiches, such as steak tip subs, and pasta casseroles, can be found on the lunch menu.

At the Brickhouse Cafe, portions are generous, service is friendly, and the atmosphere is inviting. The staff strives to make everything from scratch and recently acquired a pasta machine, so house-made pasta will soon become a reality as well, according to Geary.

Marino clearly puts a lot of effort into his restaurant and could be found walking around checking on tables throughout the evening. If you are looking for traditional Southern Italian cuisine in the Dedham area, you will find it here.

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