From Crush to Nishino, Madison Valley is a rich restaurant row. Along that tree-lined stretch are French bistros Luc and Voilà, Jae’s Asian Bistro, Essential Bakery’s soup-and-sandwich cafe, vegetarian Mecca Café Flora and Basque bastion The Harvest Vine. Three-month-old Bar Cantinetta nicely fills the Italian niche.
This boutique version of the Cantinetta restaurants in Wallingford and Bellevue has the same rustic-chic Northern Italian look: ladder-back chairs with straw seats, benches cozied with cushions, oil lamps and posies on dark-stained wood tables, crystal drops glinting in the chandeliers overhead.
Filament bulbs glow above the long bar, which is set, as the tables are, for dinner, with a soft, blue-striped cotton napkin, a water glass and a vintage knife and fork at each place. When I parked myself at the bar’s farthest end, where a few seats face a matchbox-size kitchen, I was surprised to find executive chef Emran Chowdhury in front of the stove. (But having been spotted by manager and co-owner Trevor Greenwood, who happened to be working the door, my cover was already blown.)
Chowdhury was born in Bangladesh but raised in Toronto, where he started his cooking career at Terroni and other Italian restaurants. Just 31, he oversees all the Cantinetta kitchens, as well as Mercato Stellina, the Bellevue pizzeria. He rotates among all the restaurants and works the line.
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As befits the compact space, Bar Cantinetta’s menu is a pared-down version of what you’d find in the larger establishments. It offers just four primi (i.e., pasta or risotto) and a single secondi (entree), but, consistent with the bar-centric nature of the place, nearly a dozen small-to-medium antipasti plates.
The menu changes monthly. November’s swoon-worthy, parchment-wrapped package of black cod with puréed celery root and sweet potato has been superseded this month by short ribs over polenta. Sticking around for the holidays is a near-perfect butternut-squash risotto, extra creamy with mascarpone and studded with spicy bits of sopressata. Get it while you can.
Pasta is a must here. It’s made fresh in Wallingford for all the restaurants by Joe Obaya. Chowdhury sauces with restraint, letting the noodles shine. Alas, also gone with November are little Lopez Island clams in their shells, encircling a bundle of vermicelli whispering of garlic, olive oil and Calabrian chilies; and spiky, pale green bites of Romanesco broccoli dotting aggressively peppered, Parmesan-dusted tagliatelle slick with butter and olive oil. I hope both return soon.
On December’s menu, I’d put my money on lasagnette (narrow, lasagna-like noodles) layered with burrata, Bloomsburg spinach and broccoli raab. Spaghetti-like bavette with polpette is a good bet, too, given that it features the same tender beef meatballs braised in feisty tomato sauce that I devoured in a sandwich at lunch. (Lunch service was suspended last week and will resume in January on Fridays only.)
Recommended antipasti include irresistible arancini — deep-fried risotto balls with a heart of smoked scamorza (cheese) planted in a minty English-pea purée. Salt-roasted beets, radicchio and Satsuma oranges have replaced the rosy beet, grapefruit and shaved fennel salad I recently enjoyed. I hope the lovely, lemon-kissed salad of farro, endive, fennel and celery makes a comeback this winter.
Honey-glazed pecorino baked on a cedar plank, a fragrant melt of cheese scooped up with fennel crackers, works equally well before or after dinner. If you’re hungering for a sweeter indulgence, zeppole, deep-fried dough filled with nutella, is the way to go.
House cocktails include a dashing Italian Greyhound, a blend of Tito’s vodka and grapefruit juice ruddy with Campari and a pleasantly bitter quince martini made with the Italian aperitif Cocchi Americano.
Some diners settle in for a four-course feast, others order intermittently, sharing everything, something the staff encourages. Food prices are fairly moderate, but $12 cocktails and a pricey wine list can boost the bottom line pretty fast. Evidently the neighborhood can bear it: The party of four next to me was on its second bottle of Tignanello — list price $148.
The house Sangiovese doesn’t have quite the same cachet, but at $6.50 a glass, I could afford two.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.