The restaurant is directly off the casino floor. It has a bright yellow, illuminated sign letting you know you've arrived to the right place.
The entrance to the space is beneath a giant trellis, wrapped in beautiful pink flowers.
Considering it's been gray, cold and snowy in Boston for the last few months, those blooms really transported us to a warmer time and place.
We were seated at a very comfortable table with a view of the open kitchen. As we were settling in, our server came over to introduce herself, and she handed the birthday girl a card, signed by the entire restaurant team.
How sweet is that? The image of all the servers signing their names during staff meal just warms my heart.
I had peeked at the menu online, but was excited to survey the options.
The wine menu was especially cute, with a celebratory "Cin-cin!" above the list of choices.
I went with a glass of sauvignon blanc, while many at the table ordered the same two cocktails - the Umbrella by the Road (gin, cocchi rosa, orgeat and lime soda) and the Livorno Sunrise (vodka, blood orange strega, curacao and peychaud's).
The Umbrella by the Road got a rave review, "Not too sweet and very refreshing," while the Livorno Sunrise was a bit of a bust, "Too much citrus, not enough booze."
While we were deciding on food, we were delivered a basket of bread and a jug of olive oil. The bread was just how I like it - doughy center and a hearty crust on the outside.
We ordered several appetizers. The first to arrive was the saffron arancini with smoked mozzarella and a green marinara sauce.
Each rice ball was the size of a baseball! When you cut into it, the smoked mozzarella oozed down the center (in the best way).
The rice had just right the amount of saffron flavor, the exterior was crisp, and the green tomato sauce added a brightness and freshness to every bite. This was my favorite dish of the night.
Across the table, two friends were enjoying Nana's meatballs, coated in traditional marinara sauce and served with a few pieces of grilled semolina bread.
"These are a bit bland. I wish they had more spice to them. I can definitely taste the cheese, but I keep wanting to put on more tomato sauce," she said. Her boyfriend added, "The toasted bread was great, but there wasn't enough to use with all the meatballs, which was a disappointment."
Next to me, a friend was enjoying the yellowfin tuna tartare.
She described, "The tuna tastes like it's been marinated in something like vinegar. It's giving it a salty taste, which I actually really like. There was fennel on top, a vegetable I don't normally like, but it was a nice contrast to the briny taste from the tuna. This is a generous portion size - more than I was expecting."
I decided to start with the little gem Caesar, which was listed on the menu as "onion dip, parmesan and truffle vinaigrette," all things I love. When the dish arrived, I couldn't get over how huge the portion was. Four people could have shared this.
I was hoping for a true onion dip, either in the center or on the side as the dressing, but it was thin and spread lightly on each piece of lettuce. If you are going to say something comes with onion dip, the diner is going to expect an actual dip!
The salad had a sprinkle of breadcrumbs, but it really needed full-size croutons to add more crunch.
It took me until half way through the dish to discover the classic Caesar dressing was on the bottom of the plate, under the mountain of lettuce. I wish the server had told me that, so I could have mixed up the entire plate before I started eating it.
For the main course, I ordered a margherita pizza. This is a simple dish, and I was thinking, "This is a safe order." Unfortunately, I was wrong.
What I love most about margherita pizza is the dollops of fresh mozzarella cheese, paired with the sweet San Marzano tomato sauce and fresh basil leaves. Cal Mare's rendition lacked finesse on all three of those core components.
The birthday girl commented, "It's a shame - it looks like they panini pressed that cheese in there."
Next to me, a friend was cutting into the mozzarella and beet salad. This was a very beautiful presentation.
She explained, "I've eaten a lot of beet salads over the years, and this one just isn't the best. Though there was a generous amount of cheese, which I appreciated, but this root vegetable really tastes best with goat cheese."
As it turns out, the star of the Cal Mare menu is the pasta dishes (lesson learned). The birthday girl ordered the potato gnocchi with jonah crab, PEI mussels and saffron cream.
Half way through the bowl she said, "This is a lemony, buttery delight. The mussels are marinated perfectly. The gnocchi melts in your mouth." She paused and then insisted, "You can tell the readers that I moaned!"
To her right, a friend was digging into the squash tortellini, topped with parmesan, fennel sofrito and red Russian kale.
She commented, "This is so rich and delicious. There's a crunchy element on top that really adds a fantastic texture to each bite."
Among all the main dishes, there was also a side of butternut squash polenta, which was incredible. It was creamy, cheesy and herbaceous from the fresh sprigs on top. No matter what you order, you have to have this on the side.
Have you been to the MGM Casino in Springfield? Have you tried any of the other restaurants? I'm so curious.