Last Wednesday night at quarter to seven, only one table at Cantinetta was unoccupied. (It wasn't that great of a table, marooned islandlike near the semiopen kitchen, but the people at Cantinetta are pleased to show you to the bar to wait for a better one.) The din was prodigious. The waitstaff bustled, and the owner clapped various customer-friends on the back or outright embraced them as they came in from the cold. A tableful of self-satisfied older men and attractive women had more uproarious fun every passing minute, aided by round after round of limoncello; two women alternately processed their feelings and felt other feelings, occasionally screaming with laughter; people on dates occupied romantic bubbles, untroubled. At the communal table in the back, five people were engulfed by an improbable number of wrapped and ribboned presents, stacks and piles of them.
Seattle doesn't need another Italian restaurant. Good ones, both old-school and new-authentic, are plentiful; the economy's gone to hell in a handbasket and shows no signs of returning. Cantinetta, open since the beginning of January, is in a now-familiar regional-Italian/handmade-pasta/local-and- seasonal-ingredients mode. It's obscurely located on a residential stretch of Wallingford Avenue North in a former dentist's office. Its interior is unoriginal if perfectly executed rustic-chic: dark wood floors, heavy wood tables, heavy-framed mirrors, warming candlelight. It's indisputably too loud—maybe something about the L-shaped room and big picture windows ("What?" "What?"). But Seattle loves Cantinetta, and rightly so.
The menu descriptions, with their spare but auspicious lists of three or four ingredients, recall dishes available at several places around town (and innumerable places in Italy). Current revival foods are well represented (brussels sprouts, poached duck egg, braised oxtail, agnolotti). What's on the plate is just straight-up good. The happiest-making thing I've had at Cantinetta (so far): a heap of stewy rabbit cacciatore on a bed of polenta ($15). The rabbit had enough spicy heat to round out the gaminess of the meat beautifully; the polenta was so nice—not too buttery, just-right creamy—you wanted to lie down on it. The portion: quite gigantic.
Cantinetta's pastas have also proved to be delicious. The recent tagliatelle ($15.50) was porcini infused, the incorporated mushroom dust giving an earthy, savory weight to noodles that otherwise seemed so thin as to be insubstantial. They were almost buried by a massive quantity of sautéed foraged mushrooms. A whole clove of smashed, roasty-sweet garlic was also found, and lots of fresh marjoram lent a floral note (almost too strong but then again, just right). Vegetarians beware: It also had the gift of unlisted bacon. Pappardelle with a bright, winey Bolognese sauce ($16) was a very fine version and inhaled accordingly. Gnocchini ($16) with the aforementioned braised oxtail, as well as turnips and butternut squash, was not a favorite—all textures were squishy, and the taste tended toward sweet—but it was an above-average winter dish nonetheless.
In the nonlocal, nonseasonal category, an antipasto of a sliced-and-fanned half avocado with grapefruit, oil-cured black olives, and pickled chili ($6) was a marvel. The balance of nutty avocado smoothness and citrus with vinegar, salt, and spice is exciting the way finding an orange in your stocking must once have been. To get back to basics (if basics turned fad), sautéed brussels sprouts ($8.50) were not the mushy ones of yore, but crisp, served with the soft, awesome richness of duck confit and shallot. And in the classics category, mussels ($9) were creamy and bountiful, their puttanesca broth savory without being oversalinated. A few whole anchovies made extra-great bites, and the olive bits in the broth got spooned up after.
Secondi courses—the rabbit cacciatore, a tasty Painted Hills hanger steak with varying vegetable ($17), line-caught ivory salmon with fennel/leeks/farotto ($17)—are good values for those who are immune to the allure of pasta or who have heroic appetites. I only made it to dessert once, and that was because the chocolate torta ($8.50, above par) had to be ordered in advance.
The wine list is half Italian, half Washington, and all on the expensive side—few bottles below $30, a number above $100. For the less financially abled, Cantinetta considerately offers house wine for $5.50 a glass. As far as service goes, the only problem encountered was one glass of wine that got lost in the shuffle; otherwise it was consistently kind, swift, and perfect for a party of a place.
Cantinetta's chef, Brian Cartenuto, came out of nowhere: He answered a Craigslist ad while working on a deluxe cruise ship in the Mediterranean. Owner Trevor Greenwood (from Via Tribunali and, before that, Queen City Grill) flew him over to cook for his family for several days, to see how the match took. At Cantinetta, through a couple interior pantry windows, you can see Cartenuto and his staff all intent during rushes, then talking and laughing later on. They don't mess up and they have a good time, making the work of a hot, demanding kitchen look both focused and fun. They're lucky, and so's the city—especially Cantinetta's neighbors.