When St. Louis-born brothers Michael and John Castelli moved to the desert three decades ago, they took a chance on a modest 30-seat eatery on Highway 111 where they planned to share a taste of Old World Italy with guests via their favorite family recipes.
Turns out they’ve done a lot more than that.
Over the past 31 years, Castelli’s Ristorante has become an institution, a gathering spot for locals, and a can’t-miss stop for visitors when they’re in town. The dark woods, lace curtains, and soft lighting provide a warm, inviting atmosphere, throwing it back to the old supper-club days. Since opening, the space has expanded multiple times to seat nearly 200, and the walls are covered with photos of athletes, presidents, and actors who have dined there over the years, including Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Joe Pesci, Martin Short, Bob Hope, Heather Locklear, and James Caan, to name a few.
“Guests feel like part of the family when they come here,” says Michael Castelli, whose surname means “castles” in Italian. “They’re greeted by my brother or me. The atmosphere is just great, and we have a wonderful piano player every night. People say it reminds you of a place in New York or Chicago. It just has that old-school feel.”
And then, of course, there’s the food. Some dishes — like the famous fettucine alfredo and osso bucco — have remained on the menu since the early days, but newer additions have become just as popular, including the classic cioppino seafood stew, the 22-ounce charbroiled bone-in rib-eye with Gorgonzola, and the sherry-glazed, caramelized apple pork chops that began as a special. “I was getting calls from people back east saying, ‘We’re going to be in the desert. Are you having pork chops that night?’” Michael recounts. “We had to put them on the menu.”
In addition to making you “feel like family,” a goal achieved through their delicious dishes and warm, welcoming staff, the brothers Castelli aim to please your palate and will customize your meal to perfezione, even accommodating gluten-free and vegan requests. It’s one of the reasons Zagat rated Castelli’s among America’s top 1,000 Italian restaurants and Palm Springs Life readers voted it Best of the Best in Palm Desert. After dinner, guests can linger as they might in Italy over a traditional cappuccino Romano or a slice of homemade tiramisu as evening entertainer Patrick Tuzzolino serenades from the piano with jazz standards or original compositions.
The classic cioppino seafood stew features shrimp, mussels, clams, crab legs, and fresh fish in a tomato fish stock.
The restaurant still gets its fair share of high-profile customers, including filmmaker Peter Farrelly, who recently revealed to Michael that he started fleshing out the concept for his Oscar-winning movie Green Book at one of Castelli’s tables. “I told him, ‘Well I didn’t hear you thank us in your speech,’” Michael laughs, nonetheless happy by all that he and John have accomplished. “This restaurant really has changed lives in terms of memories, proposals, and anniversaries. My brother and I really get a kick out of it.”