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Originally published Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Restaurant review

Main Street may be the address, but Bellevue's Cantinetta offers praiseworthy fare with Tuscan flair

Bellevue's Cantinetta evokes a Tuscan farmhouse feel and does not disappoint in its food or presentation.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Ribollita $7.50
Butter lettuce and apple
salad $8.50
Pumpkin risotto $15
Ricotta gnocchi with lamb
spezzatino $16.50
Seared cod and roasted
fennel $19.50

Cantinetta

3 stars

Italian

10038 Main St., Bellevue

425-233-6040

www.cantinettabellevue.com

Reservations: Accepted for parties of six or more only.

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Prices: $$$ (Antipasti and contorni $6.50-$12; primi $15-$16.50; secondi $18-$19.50.)

Drinks: Full bar; wines from Italy and Washington state.

Parking: On street.

Sound: Boisterous when full.

Who should go: Eastsiders who wish they were "under the Tuscan sun."

Credit cards: All major.

Access: No obstacles.

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Bellevue's Cantinetta evokes the Tuscan farmhouse author Frances Mayes has had people lusting after for years.

It has scarred maple floorboards and sturdy ladder-back chairs around roomy trestle tables, each with an oil candle that illuminates a single flower in a tiny vase. Patinated chandeliers and pretty little lamps perched here and there create a honeyed sepia glow in which everyone looks like a movie star.

With its intimate bar, a semi- secluded table for 12 in the back, and peek-a-boo windows up front between the open kitchen and the convivial dining room, Cantinetta Bellevue also looks uncannily like the original in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood, two years old this month.

The menu seems familiar, too, offering assorted antipasti and contorni; several house-made pastas that rank among the best on either side of the lake; plus a few secondi.

But the Tuscan-inspired fare here — simple, rustic, yet nuanced — is the work of talented Israeli-born chef Tomer Shneor. He has traveled much of the world but clearly left his heart somewhere north of Rome.

You can taste Tuscany in the sage that murmurs through a marvelous ribollita, a bread-thickened, kale-flecked white bean soup; in the luxurious chestnut cream sauce clinging to hedgehog mushrooms and slender, seemingly endless tagliarini noodles; and in a pitch-perfect pumpkin and pecorino risotto.

And what could be more Tuscan than balsamic-splashed, rosemary-scented boar sausage crumbled among tender potato gnocchi and the last of the summer's peaches, ideally accompanied by a glass of Sangiovese from a wine list that splits its loyalty between Italy and Washington state.

That dish was a late-September offering. The menu gets frequent updates. Recently there are ricotta gnocchi, dumplings so delicate you wonder how they got from pot to plate intact. They look like large marshmallows ringing lamb spezzatino and their near-creamy lightness is just right with that robust, mint-kissed stew.

Pappardelle Bolognese has lately given way to cocoa pappardelle, wide, dusky noodles made with bittersweet chocolate in a lusty, long-simmered duck sugo bolstered with rosemary, paprika and a flurry of grated pecorino. It's an alluringly bitter, earthy, deeply savory dish — and not at all chocolaty, by the way.

As winter arrives, so do root vegetables and citrus. Knobby Jerusalem artichokes roasted to supple sweetness glisten with white truffle oil. Tangerine segments encircle braised beef short ribs mounted on celeriac purée, preventing the richness from running amok.

Anise in many guises counters the oiliness of seared black cod. The fillet is presented in a bowl with braised fennel in a Sambuca-spiked broth tinted green with fennel fronds and fennel pollen. Crisp coins of fennel salami on top mimic the fish's crackling skin.

Honeycrisp apple slices layered napoleonlike between leaves of butter lettuce make a stunning salad. Dressed with brown butter and apple cider, sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and shaved pecorino, it is one of several vegetarian options.

Lapses in the kitchen were minor. Rubbery bresaola, part of a meat-and-cheese antipasto, was not quite on a par with its partner, a wedge of briny, camembert-ish Dinah's Cheese from Vashon's Kurtwood Farms.

One night I pushed aside an unfinished plate of garganelli with brown butter and sage. Assistant manager Amon Mende noticed and asked if it was too salty. It was, I said, surprised. "We've had other complaints tonight," he acknowledged, and offered to bring another one, which was perfectly executed. (Full disclosure: My cover had been blown earlier, but others received the same consideration.)

Opening a second restaurant has some advantages, co-owner and manager Trevor Greenwood said in a phone interview. One is that you have a training ground for employees. Two years ago Mende was tending bar at Cantinetta in Wallingford; here he manages the floor with intelligence and charm, traits he shares with the rest of the adroit staff.

Praiseworthy pasta-maker Joe Obaya services both restaurants, as does Lorna Stokes, Cantinetta's original pastry chef. Try her delicate spiced cream tart with pine nuts, or airy zeppole stuffed with Nutella. Huckleberry compote fills her adorable arrancini — kumquat-sized, deep-fried balls of sweetened Arborio rice. I found them irresistible, much like Cantinetta.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

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