Enchanting Cantinetta, and its bowl of brodo

Cantinetta exteriorOn 41st, between Wallingford Avenue North and Burke Avenue North. No, there’s no restaurant there, but it’s where I’m tempted to move, as it would be exactly in between restaurants offering some of my favorite meals of late.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Joule, near the intersection of 45th and Burke. I’ve had consistently incredible food there. And now, after some nibbles of Chef Brian Cartenuto’s cooking at a couple of recent events, I finally made it into Cantinetta, at 37th and Wallingford, and I’ve got another favorite in the same area.

These are both fabulous neighborhood restaurants, and Wallingford’s lucky to have them. They’re upscale enough to feel like going out for a special occasion, yet still down-to-earth enough to dress casually. High quality food at perfect price points. Why can’t I find places like this on the top of Queen Anne? Yes, I’m jealous.

While Joule has counter seating (perfect for solo dining, or for two who enjoy each other’s company and watching the chefs in action), Cantinetta has seating for eating al fresco. I opted, though, to enjoy the indoor light and open feeling of the rustic yet contemporary dining room.

Some might say that I’m commitment-phobic when it comes to ordering food, but sometimes I like to let the chefs strut their stuff—choosing what they think is best. This alleviates concern about making good choices, and usually leads to new discoveries. Chef Brian Cartenuto was more than happy to send out samplings from the menu.

Avocado, grapefruit, oil-cured olives, chiliesWho can argue with oysters as a starter, here spiked with lemoncello sorbetti? The next dish, though, provided the first revelatory moment of the meal. A plate of avocado, grapefruit, cured olives, and chilies is just the kind of dish I love, with different textures and tastes—spicy, briny, and bold. We also enjoyed other antipasti selections:, a “tonnato” of slow-roasted pork loin, and grilled panzanella with green beans and tomatoes.

Three selections from the primi part of the menu followed. My first bite was of a big-as-the-plate ravioli, which I enjoyed. Initially, the saltiness of the pancetta seemed too strong, but it was nicely balanced by the sweet, caramelized onions. While I’m not the biggest gnocchi fan, Cartenuto’s gnocchini were divine—with more potato flavor than any I’ve ever had—and served with spinach, tomatoes and a gorgeous scoop of fresh ricotta.

Carleton Farms pork tortellini with charred ramps and \"molla brodo\"But best of all was the Carleton Farms pork tortellini, charred ramps, and “molla brodo,” which simply bowled me over. Brodo is broth—that I understand. Molla, though, seems to be something that Cartenuto came up while playing with Babelfish. Maybe a mistake, but if it means food this good, then bring on more molla. I loved the pasta and the earthiness of the ramps (and some other grilled vegetables), but it’s the broth that made this course a real winner. Cartenuto said the dish is an homage to his mother, who always made tortellini from scratch and served it in a simple soup base. (He added that it’s a spin on pho, noting the Vietnamese soup’s popularity in Seattle.) I say it’s simply delicious, and endlessly drinkable—even at the tail end of a filling, fabulous meal.

I couldn’t resist trying one from the secondi section, and enjoyed hanger steak with artichokes, waxy beans, and pesto. My first bite was grisly, but the rest was more tender—and a perfect vehicle for the zesty pesto. I barely had room for dessert, but was ready for a sweet ending, so said “Surprise me.” Surprise indeed. In addition to cheesecake flan, Cartenuto sent out some basil pound cake that he might add to the menu. I’m seeing basil in more and more desserts these days (I’ll soon tell you about a caprese-like crème brulee I ate recently), so I worry that it’s getting overdone, but here I wanted it to have a stronger presence, as it would be a good counterpoint to the accompanying strawberry gelato and strawberry cabernet compote.

I suspect Cartenuto is the type who welcomes feedback on his food, as he explained to me that his vision is to take classic dishes and spin them in a new way. In this way, Cantinetta is a success. It’s family-influenced dining that feels homey yet sophisticated—fresh and full of flavor. In the past year, I’ve been from Spiga to Spinasse, and Bizzarro to Barolo. Good Italian eats, all. But Cantinetta might very well be my favorite.

All of the dishes are in the photo gallery below. (Clicking on the photos enlarges them.) And check out this debut video (I bought a Flip Mino, but might switch over to a Creative Vado), which captures Cartenuto and part of his team in the kitchen:

Cantinetta on Urbanspoon

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