I had been hearing from multiple food-savvy friends about Cantinetta, a sweet little neighborhood Italian restaurant tucked away in Wallingford. Uniformly, they had raved about the food so it rose to the top of the list when looking for a birthday dinner location, particularly when one of the requirements was that it had to be somewhere new to me.
I don’t know about you, but for me the ambience of a restaurant is right up there with the food in transforming a dining experience from good into great. Though I’m reluctant to use that word — because it makes me think of white tablecloths and candle light — and really the term is much broader than that because it’s not schmancy that makes great ambience. Getting a cubano sandwich from Paladar Cubano’s fixed “truck” and eating it at the picnic table in the Aurora-adjacent tent has an ambience all its own, and perfect for the experience.
The ambience at Cantinetta is warm and friendly, a perfect match for its neighborhood location. Worn wood floors, taken from the old Garfield High School I’m told, bring a lovely warmth to the space. The variety of big mirrors, enormous metal light fixture and artfully mismatched flatwear all make for a restaurant you could easily cozy into for a leisurely meal.
On this particular evening, we went the leisurely route sampling something from each of the segments of the menu: antipasti, primi, contorni and secondi. We started with the pancetta wrapped dates with baby red oak — the photo of which truly does not do it justice — and the avocado with grapefruit, oil cured olives and chilis. Deborah, our fantastic server for the evening, recommended the avocado as a specialty of the house and she was spot on. The creaminess of the avocado and olives contrasted with the acidity of the grapefruit, accented by the zing from the chilis. Fantastic!
From there it was on to the house made pappardelle with rabbit sugo and morel mushrooms. The wide noodles were perfectly done, and just the right balance for the surprisingly light rabbit and morel. (Although I never participated in the morel hunts, these particular mushrooms make me think of my family and their time spent in northern Idaho so it was only fitting to order this particular dish with my mother and sister…)
The final savories of the evening were the slightly sweet and still firm roasted cauliflower with a 15 year balsamic vinegar and grana, and this spectacularly large serving of treviso (think a cross between radicchio and endive) drizzled with a pancetta vinaigrette. One can never have too much pancetta, right? It was excellent in this dish, taking a little of the bite out of the treviso. And accompanying it, the Painted Hills teres major, a beautiful cut of beef served atop creamy polenta with a red wine jus over all.
Dessert came in liquid form, with a surprise gift of a glass of limoncello with a candle affixed to the base. Such a lovely, warm and inviting place to spend a birthday, or any evening you’re in search of beautifully-presented, delicious food with ambience to match.