Part of America's enduring affection for neighborhood Italian restaurants like Cantinetta is that 95 percent of us grow up slurping down noodles before we grow molars and dumping red sauce out of a jar before we learn to cook. These days, rustic French cuisines seem affected, Chinese and Thai are still considered cheap eats, but Italian—Italian's simultaneously nostalgic and romantic. Cantinetta's owners and chef understand that instinctively. So does the rest of Wallingford.You can read as much about Italian cuisine in Seattle from the restaurant's decor as from its menu. The strong, square lines of its chairs and tables—solid enough to withstand a barroom brawl or a swashbuckler's fight—echo Branzino and Cafe Juanita, while the Byronic chandeliers are reminiscent of Barolo and Via Tribunali and the lace curtains on its windows must have come from the same nonna who tatted them for Spinasse in Capitol Hill. There's no contrast between the Design Within Reach rectangular wine shelf running most of the length of the room, suspended a few inches from the ceiling, and the irregularly polished wooden floor or the butter-yellow walls, a color that has seamlessly transitioned from faddish to classic. Warm and clean at the same time, Cantinetta is instantly likeable.It's also busy, busy, busy. Even the recent heat wave couldn't keep the locals from packing in, and you could practically feel the air conditioner grunting from the effort it took to bring the temperature down 10 degrees. Even though we were all preparing to spend at least $35 a person, no one bothered to dress up, and even the waiters were wearing sandals and popping open an extra button on their shirts to cool down. While I sat at my table with a glass of mercifully cool pinot grigio, a round of apple-bellied guys in cargo shorts strode through the door to the back bar, clutching hands with every member of the waitstaff before sitting down for their first bottle of red. "What, two days in a row?" I heard one of the waiters ask. It's that kind of place.The Weekly's first food review, 33 years ago, was of an Italian restaurant—Filiberto's in Burien, which closed last year and will soon reopen in a new location. And Italian-American cuisine keeps evolving with the times. Just when mama-pappa Eye-talian places with one red sauce and one white sauce segued from exotic to family favorites, the Great Tuscan Wave of the 1980s sent a flood of risotto and gorgonzola across U.S. cities. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, balsamic vinegar went mass-market and we learned to stop tittering at the phrase "extra-virgin."Now, as extra-virgin olive oil is "EVOO" and Applebee's can barely impress clients by tossing sun-dried-tomato breadsticks, Italian restaurants are forging forward again, trumpeting seasonal and local ingredients along with increasingly unpronounceable varieties of pasta and red wine. Seattle is still enraptured. Cantinetta opened in January, immediately became a neighborhood gathering point, and flared into success. Part of that, of course, is due to the experience of co-owners Trevor Greenwood and Randy Quarry, who know from Queen City Grill and Via Tribunali how potent is the combination of familiar food and a good-looking space. They've hired a photogenic pack of waiters to work the room. Sometimes, when it's busy, their attention lags—during the long wait for our check, I went to the bathroom and spotted our waiter at the bar staring into infinity—and sometimes, especially if you get the server with the Amelia Earhart goggles and the tongue piercing, Cantinetta finds the perfect blend of Seattle cool and total competence.Like every ambitious chef who's spent time in Italy, chef and Seattle newcomer Brian Cartenuto divides his menu into antipasti, primi (pastas), secondi (entrées), and contorni (sides). It's a somewhat wistful classification, since most of us consider pasta a main dish and order sides whenever we damn well feel like it. (Conceding to Seattle custom, he does mark all the vegetarian items with an asterisk—there's a giant constellation of them on his short menu.)Cartenuto's ambitious enough to pre-sent a single avocado, a vegetarian foie gras that begs to be smeared on the foccacia, with salt-cured olives, chile flakes, and small grapefruit segments, an electric combination of acidic and pungent, citrus and spice. He also passes over trendier fringe ingredients in favor of seasonal, simple dishes, like a panzanella, or bread salad, with cucumbers, mixed cherry tomatoes, and the flash of fresh marjoram.It seemed odd that the kitchen's stumbling point was its sloppily made or cooked pastas. Inch-wide pappardelle, tossed with squash blossoms and fine ribbons of zucchini in a fragrant saffron cream sauce, came glued together; we had to cut up the mass of noodles as if it were a cream-frosted pancake. The triangular shells of his beet and ricotta pansotti—a variety of stuffed pasta currently en vogue—came out thick and somewhat doughy where the pasta could have been satiny; flavorwise, the chef corralled the sweetness of the beets with bitterish beet greens and shavings of salty parmesan. The sole success: gnocchini with basil pesto and sautéed cherry tomatoes. There are a lot of people in town pan-frying potato dumplings right now, but Cartenuto is the first one to barely brown the gnocchi so you taste not just the crisped edges and the frying fat but the delicate potato flavor underneath.The main dishes were more accomplished. Two stubby links of lamb sausage, studded with hazelnuts and chopped sage, could have used a bump of pork fat to smooth over any graininess from the lean meat, but the pairing of the lamb with quickly sautéed fresh nectarines, plums, apricots, and—just to keep things interesting—black olives was brilliant. Cartenuto has also mastered black cod, the Northwest's best fish, browning the skin until it crackles like crisp bacon and leaving the flesh tender enough to come apart in shiny, buttery flakes. It's served with grill-blackened wedges of radicchio and crisped prosciutto.Portions at Cantinetta are small. Small enough that when the menu calls a dish a "side" it's a side, such as a half-dozen baby carrots tossed with butter and tarragon or one slim triangle of pan-fried polenta on a bread plate. Small enough that people looking for giant bowls of pasta in red sauce are going to fume. Small enough that a starter plus an entrée—a civilized amount of food, in short—will leave you comfortably full, with dessert a definite option. When you reach that point, skip the grainy gelato, pass over the cold fruit crisps (what's the point unless they're hot?), and order the zuccotto, thin petals of sponge cake wrapped like a rosebud around a core of almond-infused whipped cream and chocolate pudding. It's Italian. It's American. It's awfully easy to finish.Price Check
Cantinetta 3650 Wallingford Ave., 632-1000, cantinettaseattle.com. WALLINGFORD. Open for dinner Tues.–Sun.
Avocado & grapefruit: $7
Lamb sausage: $17
Black cod: $18