REMEMBER JANUARY? IT’S painful to recall during the splendor of a Seattle August…but of all the places and times to open a restaurant, January 2009 in Seattle had to be the worst. The temperatures were freezing, the streets still obstructed with dirty snow, and the usual postholiday spending doldrums exacerbated by that month’s regional free fall into the recession that had already decimated the rest of the country.
That’s when Cantinetta opened: a rustic ristorante on a residential corner of Wallingford, whose wrought-iron chandeliers and lace sheers, nicked wood floors and plank tables, mullioned windows and gilded mirrors and buttery stucco walls were the picture of Tuscan insouciance itself.
Weirdest, it had diners. Tons of ’em, with new ones pouring in at the speed of word of mouth. By the time summer came and the tables hit the sidewalks the place was buzzing most nights and certified slammed on weekends. One such Saturday night we were told our wait for a table would be an hour. We squeezed into the bar and found ourselves bellied up alongside John Sarich, the TV chef and culinary director of Chateau Ste. Michelle who decades ago founded Adriatica, Seattle’s legendary and perhaps greatest Mediterranean restaurant.
What was this Cantinetta doing right? The answer could fill a primer on how to crowd a restaurant during a recession.
1. KNOW EVERYONE IN TOWN. The owners, Trevor Greenwood and Randy Quarry, worked together at Queen City Grill and Via Tribunali, among other places that draw lots of regulars, amassing a fat Rolodex of diners (and servers) along the way. (A third owner, attorney Wade Moller, is a silent partner.) Quarry worked the bar when we were there, calling out hellos to about half the crowd. All that connection crams a restaurant—then makes it irresistible as a party.
2. BE A NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT. Recessions keep folks close to home, and Cantinetta is close to many homes—the well-appointed Craftsmans of lower Wallingford. What it’s not close to is other restaurants, located visibly (at the corner of Wallingford Avenue and 37th Street) but not anchored to a commercial district. Pretty savvy. Packs the house with neighbors chatting across tables, which gives it the warm soul of a cozy and candlelit third place.
3. BE REASONABLE. Cantinetta’s owners set out to keep prices of all antipasti, contorni, pasta, and entrées below $20—just the kind of shorthand that lures impecunious diners. This can lead to some satisfying pasta meals, like a romp through a workmanlike Bolognese over housemade pappardelle. It can also yield happy bargains, like the $18.50 chunk of tender Copper River salmon we sampled in its season, served simply on a plate with a few stalks of blushing asparagus.
But those affordable price tags can also mislead. Because secondi, like the chewy hanger steak with Walla Walla sweets and chunks of porcini or the tender grilled pork loin with roasted apricot and caramelized fennel, cried out for a starch, perhaps a pasta split between two diners. On another visit we demolished an unusually stimulating risotto, full of backbone with bits of pheasant and shiitake and rich pools of truffle oil, which would have enhanced both meats. And would have upped the price-per-person tab to a more standard $24.
But overall, Cantinetta broadens the definition of reasonable. The night we rode up to the stylish restaurant on our bikes they didn’t hesitate to seat us up front—helmet hair and all. When a waiter broke a water glass at our table he swept it up so invisibly and with such humble charm the whole event registered in his plus column. And as we stood to leave the bar, we spied behind the counter an item that sweetly belied the strength and sure-handedness of our cocktails: a copy of Bartending for Dummies.
4. BE ITALIAN. Cantinetta is Italian to the roots of its angel hair. Chef Brian Cartenuto, who had worked in Washington, DC, (Lavandou, Dean and DeLuca), was lured from Italy via Craiglist then proceeded to wow his bosses with his simple, fresh Italian fare.
A few of his dishes were wows. A spare panzanella salad shimmied its way above the field with the simple, unexpected addition of fat, crunchy onions. A starter of grilled pancetta-wrapped dates oozed its luscious sugars, then countered them with the bacon and dandelion greens and a perfect balsamic wash. Man, it was fine.
And, as if to prove his Italian cred, Cartenuto gives us the rarely seen tortellini in brodo, or broth, in various versions. We tried pork tortellini with charred ramps in a deeply vegetal broth, frankly because Sarich was loving his so much. Think very potent tortellini soup. Better still was the casoncelli pasta, in which ravioli-like crumples hold a pasty blend of soppresatta and veal and chicken, then are served in a puddle of oil with sage leaves and pancetta chews and crumbled amaretti. The pride of Bergamo—now in Wallingford.
5. BE CROWD-PLEASING. Candidly speaking, most of what we tried at Cantinetta weren’t wows so much as crowd-pleasers—mussels in a light bay-fragrant broth, or savory gnocchini. Food with broad popular appeal puts butts in seats, no question, which Cantinetta augments with that trifecta of irresistibles: hard liquor, hot waiters (and they are—to a one), and stunning desserts. Housemade gelati and a lemon-thyme and peach crisp were terrific, but it was the bombolini—fluffy knots of dough dredged in crunchy sugar and filled with vanilla mascarpone—that put us directly in touch with the Almighty. Instant classic.
6. BE RESERVATIONLESS. There’s now officially no getting around the no—reservations-for-parties-of-fewer-than-six trend in Seattle, which is the rule at Cantinetta—and which is why the waits are so long. Why do proprietors do it? Easier table management, for starters. And all those waiting bodies sure do fill a restaurant.
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