Gather round, cats and cabbage, and allow me to offer you a rare glimpse behind the curtain at the House of Icarus. When I initially began blogging about the Seattle food scene (after that fateful meal at the Corson Building last summer), I made the conscious decision to do so anonymously. It was my intention to provide objective commentary in as pure and unbiased a way as possible, admitting that the subjective nature of taste and experience inevitably renders this endeavor difficult. Still, I felt that going into it without any strings attached, without any presumptions about who I might be or what I might say would prove to be a far more honest approach – and ultimately provide more value to you, the reader.
So what on earth does this have to do with Cantinetta? Well, a few weeks ago we were entertaining guests from out of town, and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to make the trek out to the residential hinterlands of Wallingford and see what all the buzz was about. Cantinetta only accepts reservations for parties of six or more, and when we showed up on a Saturday night, the tiny Italian joint with a big reputation was already spilling onto the streets (staff scrambled to accommodate demand, setting up impromptu tables on the sidewalk outside). We were told an hour wait, minimum, and slowly made our way through the crush of people towards the bar, also packed.
My first impression was that, for such a cramped space, Cantinetta sure manages to accommodate a surfeit of shrieking banshees. The room is a sonic onslaught of noise, a din comparable to a Sonic Youth freakout (or Columbia City Tutta Bella on a Friday night). The décor is rustic, with white lace curtains and antique mirrors and distinctive, almost medieval-looking wooden chandeliers. There’s a dozen or so tables and banquettes of varying size, including one large communal table in the back. The kitchen is separated from the main dining area, but remains visible through framed glass windows which lend the bustling chefs an almost voyeuristic appeal. The whole scene is rather hectic, and didn’t exactly transport me back to Tuscany.
I was too busy observing the room and enjoying a glass of Sangiovese to notice that one of my party had broken away from the crew and was making small talk with a gentleman at the end of the bar. She soon wandered back and I inquired after their conversation. Imagine my chagrin – my horror – when I discovered that she had unwittingly “outed me” to one of Cantinetta’s co-owners. Or maybe he was a business partner? I can’t remember exactly – I was pretty mortified when he eventually approached me. He then introduced me to the bartender, Randy Quarry (also part owner – eep!), who was very pleasant and amiable, while I in turn stumbled around and made an ass of myself. We were seated five minutes later.
Who knows, but the whole incident illustrates why I strive to keep a very low profile. I don’t want preferential treatment – I want a genuine experience. I want to be able to convey the closest approximation to an experience that you might have at any given restaurant on any given night. Thankfully, nothing else transpired throughout the evening that struck me as partisan. But enough of this navel-gazing! How was the food, dammit?
We started with some antipasti, which was mostly fair to middling. A plate of avocado and grapefruit with cured olives and chilies was smooth and salty, with a little kick, but nothing much else beyond simple presentation. A panzanella salad with fresh raw cucumbers, tomatoes and onion was just fine (the tomatoes were ripe and juicy, but the bread was overly stale and hard to chew). A skewer of porchetta wrapped in pancetta and served over grilled polenta with raw sage leaves was fatty, undercooked, and looked like a sad lump of gray matter on the plate. Not good.
But all was forgiven when we arrived at the main courses. This is clearly where executive chef Brian Cartenuto shines in the kitchen (I know very little else about Cartenuto, except that he’s from out of town). I was ecstatic over a hot bowl of tagliatelle with rabbit ragu and succulent, earthy morels. The broth was light and aromatic, a vegetable-base with lots of carrots and celery and black pepper. The rabbit was mild and exquisite, and the noodles were perfect. And yet, even this spectacular dish was upstaged by a sumptuous risotto stewed with confit of pheasant, shittakes and truffle oil. The light gamey flavor of the pheasant provided a perfect balance to the creamy risotto and savory mushrooms. Those two dishes alone warrant a repeat visit, and are easily some of the best food I’ve eaten all year. The rest of the meal was rounded out with a meaty Hen of the Woods and prosciutto tortellini and a particularly fine hanger steak with Walla Walla onions and buttery porcini.
Desserts were a mixed bag, with a Rainier cherry custard that had a very strange, rubbery texture and a key lime cheesecake so utterly out of place on the menu that we simply had to try it (the Cantinetta folks must know something about Tuscany that I don’t). It was awesomely tart, with a beautiful raspberry coulis and chocolate and graham cracker. We finished up and rolled out into the warm night air. I breathed a small sigh of relief.
In addition to the (mostly) stellar food, the waitstaff were pleasant and unpretentious, helpful with the wine list and generally attentive. If only they could do something about the noise level… I feel compelled to repeat that the place is crazy loud. Know what you’re getting into. Maybe try hitting it up before the supper rush? Maybe bring earplugs? Cantinetta has great potential to be a romantic dining experience, with the oil wick candles and cozy room – but it’s all very boisterous at the moment.
Anyhow, I know this was a little more personal information than I usually inject into these posts, but I thought the experience and my reaction deserved mention. Thanks for indulging me. More importantly, thanks for reading.