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Originally published April 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 10, 2009 at 11:41 AM

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Restaurant review

Cantinetta is a dreamy, delicious slice of Tuscany in Wallingford

Cantinetta, a Tuscany-inspired Italian restaurant in Wallingford, has exemplary house-made pastas, and nearly half the menu is vegetarian friendly. Three-star review by Providence Cicero.

Special to The Seattle Times

Cantinetta3 stars

Italian

3650 Wallingford Ave. N., Seattle

206-632-1000

www.cantinettaseattle.com

Reservations: Accepted for parties of six or more.

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Prices: $$ (antipasti $6.50-$9; pastas and entrees $15-$18)

Drinks: Full bar; selective list of Italian and Washington wines.

Parking: On street.

Sound: Loud.

Who should go: Those yearning for a taste of Tuscany.

Credit cards: All major cards.

Access: No obstacles to access.

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Seattle has never looked more Oz-like than it does glimpsed at twilight from a table in the broad front window of Cantinetta. Perhaps that's because this sepia- tinted restaurant on Wallingford's southern slope has a make-believe quality of its own.

Like Justin Neidermeyer's Spinasse, Cantinetta is another powerfully evocative slice of Italy but with more square footage, separate tables and a Tuscan mindset. It's hard to believe a dental office once occupied this 1920s brick storefront. The interior appears to have been transported — lock, stock and breadsticks — from San Gimignano or Siena.

You'll find those rigid, salty, rosemary-flecked breadsticks at the bar. They're made by pastry chef Lorna Stokes, whose talents with dough include the delicately brittle crust for a streusel pear tart, and blissful bombolini — sugar-dusted, mascarpone-stuffed bites of fried dough.

Primed by her dense, moist focaccia dipped into green, grassy olive oil, I could feel myself falling for Cantinetta on our first date. Dark had descended and the room was awash in amber light. The host had just opened our bottle of rosso di Montepulciano, thoughtfully pouring just a taste in each glass, because our food had not yet arrived. We heard a sudden sizzle from the open kitchen followed by the mouthwatering smell of seared meat.

Hangar steak is one of three meat and fish secondi (entrees), on executive chef Brian Cartenuto's short menu, but fully half of his two dozen plates are designated vegetarian. His most impressive efforts combine a wonderful balance of flavors with an element of surprise.

One example is the lemon zest and pistachio gremolata that brighten slices of creamy mozzarella and pale pink beets crunchy with salt and slick with olive oil. Cured black olives and specks of pickled chili jolting a salad of avocado and pink grapefruit sections is another.

Cartenuto's assured cooking is evidenced in entrees like pork cheeks and that hangar steak, which was precisely cooked and lived up to its promising aromas. Though lately it's served with potatoes and olives, I had it with polenta almost as fluffy and buttery as scrambled eggs. Tucked between steak and starch was salmoriglio, a piercing blend of garlic, lemon and herbs that says basta to the unrelenting richness.

A citrus braise for pork cheeks performed the same function. Those chubby, fork-tender bundles nestled in parsnip purée; a fittingly sweet companion to the clove and cinnamon notes in the refined brown sauce distilled from the braising liquid.

Similar flavors are woven into a pasta dish featuring duck confit with red cabbage, raisins and the ragged noodles called maltagliati — made in-house as are all the pastas here. Sweet fruit and warm spices inform every bite, along with crispy-edged shards of leg and thigh meat pulled from the joint that anchors the dish.

Ricotta ravioli were also exemplary. The salty crunch of whole toasted almonds offered pleasing contrast to the soft pasta pillows, while sprigs of watercress parried the brown butter sauce.

Not every effort succeeded. Tiny gnocchi with Jerusalem artichoke and braised oxtail had overcooked gnocchi and undercooked vegetables. The couple at the next table ordered the same dish after we did; theirs was visibly different and judging from the way they cleaned the plate, far more satisfying. Foraged mushroom risotto was a little soupy one night, but the rice was firm and the goat cheese and thyme flavors immensely flattering to the trove of yellow foot chanterelles.

Trevor Greenwood, a co-owner of Cantinetta, has assembled a wine list that gives equal weight to Northern Italy and Washington state, offering something within reach of every budget. He's also assembled a smooth staff — in particular the bartenders, one of whom, Randy Quarry, is also a business partner.

Greenwood fashioned the rough-hewn tables himself, from reclaimed old-growth Douglas fir. The well-worn hardwood floorboards came from Garfield High School. Matched with textured cream-colored walls, antique mirrors and chandeliers and a few Pottery Barn accessories, they forge an elegantly rustic dining room that every Craftsman homeowner in the neighborhood will envy.

The proprietors have smartly gauged the current economic climate, giving diners what they crave right now: high-quality comfort food in a stylish but casual setting at reasonable prices. Must be why Cantinetta attracts a wide swath of the citizenry. Wearing Louboutin and La Sportiva, Prada and Eddie Bauer, they are following the yellow brick road to Wallingford.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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