Italian. It’s my favorite cuisine, but for years, I’d hate to eat it dining out in Seattle. When I moved here, there were plenty of Italian-American restaurants. You know the kind, where sauces are heavy and poured on top of too-soft pasta, and the kitschy Italian music is playing. But Seattle was deprived of many places that even came close to what I could make at home with a few simple fresh ingredients – isn’t that the essence of what Italian cooking is about?
Recently, though, Italian restaurants have started coming into their own in Seattle, serving food that emphasizes our local ingredients while evoking the authenticity of the cooking of Italy, down to the handmade pasta. Spinasse in particular has been the standout for me recently, but another new Italian place opening in a tiny corner of Wallingford took me by surprise. Cantinetta welcomed its first guests tonight.
I was intrigued when I heard that Morgan Brownlow would be its sous chef. We first came across Morgan’s cooking in Portland, just before he left clarklewis in 2006. We had an outstanding meal there, and were pleased to try his food again at Lark’s second Whole Beast Dinner a couple years ago. There, Johnathan introduced Morgan as master of the pig: he works with the whole animal, breaking it down and cooking with all of its parts. That night we had his pork snouts alla Milanese, which is one of his specialty dishes, along with a pig ear salad, and lardo cracklings, all delicious.
We were pleased to see Morgan’s obvious hand on the menu tonight. This time, trotters were there in his Milanese-style with a Salmoriglio sauce. Garlicky and tangy, they were delicious. Along with our antipasti, we also enjoyed speck with winter squash, billed as a side-dish on the menu. We dredged the pork-wrapped squash in the sweet brown-butter agro-dolce sauce, grabbing some fried sage leaves along the way. The three small morsels were gone too soon. Balancing the rich dishes, we also chose a salad. It, too, featured the pig, with bits of tesa (a type of pancetta) nestled among the chicory and walnuts. It was well-balanced, with the perfect amount of cracked black pepper.
Trevor Greenwood came over before our meal started to recommend our wine. He’s the owner of Cantinetta, wine steward, and an alumnus of the authentically Neapolitan Via Tribunali. This was our second clue that Cantinetta might be something other than ordinary.
Next course was the pasta. We ordered two pastas, both handmade, and both wonderful. The dishes were a bit pricey for what you get (for example, only six ravioli), but on the other hand, where else are you going to get pasta this good? Not Tavolata, maybe not even La Spiga. I’d say that only Spinasse has an edge on the pasta, with a more tender and delicate bite. But with hazelnut fed pork inside Cantinetta’s ravoili, and perfectly seasoned hedgehog mushrooms and chestnuts on the tagliarini, tonight’s was among the best pasta I’ve eaten in Seattle.
I wished we had some bread to sop up all the lovely sauces on every plate. A chewy soft foccacia served when we ordered was gone before the food arrived.
For our secondo, we ordered the black cod. We opted for the fish instead of the lamb sausage, to balance our meat-heavy meal. We were pleased with our choice: the sizable piece of fish was perfectly tender and buttery, with sweet carrots and leeks served simply underneath.
We thought that three antipasti, two pasta, and one secondo would be enough for four people before we headed into dessert, but we were still feeling hungry. So we ordered the house-made lamb sausage after all. Served over polenta, with peppers and olives, it was a rich dish, slightly sweet from the peppers. While we enjoyed it, the table was in agreement that it was our least-favorite of the night.
The executive chef Brian Cartenuto came around briefly to our table as our plates were getting cleared. He was making the rounds while the kitchen got a slight breather after the first wave of tables. He’s new to Seattle, arriving here in November (what a welcome, with our deluge of snow). He previously worked at restaurants in the other Washington (DC), and then a cruise line before landing here.
He continued around the packed room, to visit with each table. There seemed to be two types of parties in house: the young hipsters at the bar, and families over by the windows, including one young family with an infant and another with a preschool-age child. Kids seemed welcome here: the front waiting area even has a tiny chair for the little ones, and the noise level was loud enough that parents didn’t have to worry about small outbursts (yet, amazingly, it wasn’t so loud that you couldn’t talk comfortably with your dining companions – a welcome change).
Immediately after our plates were cleared, our dessert arrived. The waitress had warned us at the beginning that we should save room for their molten chocolate cake, and said that it would take 20 minutes to order. Our friend made it clear to her that we definitely wanted it, so it arrived even before our dessert menus. Molten, indeed, the cake was gooey and decadent – probably the best version I’ve had in a while. We enjoyed it while selecting our second dessert, an olive oil polenta cake. Light and airy, with a bit of crunch and hint of lemon, it was a lovely ending to the meal. Cantinetta would make a good late-night stop for just dessert, perhaps at the bar with a limoncello.
Four of us paid a bill of $200, which included cocktails, a bottle of wine, and after-dinner drinks. Not cheap, but honestly, pretty in-line with anything like it in Seattle. We’ll be keeping an eye on Cantinetta and likely returning soon.
3650 Wallingford Avenue N, Seattle