By Richard Foss
There is a wonderful book called “How Italian Food Conquered the World” that charts the acceptance of that cuisine into polite society. In the early 1900s, it was regarded as food for peasants, coarse and unsubtle, but during Prohibition, Americans discovered the joys of the cuisine. This may have to do with the fact that many Italian restaurants defiantly continued serving wine, but I’d like to think the virtues of the cooking were also appreciated.
It is easy to draw a line from that era to a certain kind of old-school Italian restaurant, the cheerful place where a lively atmosphere and big flavors make one feel like they’re in a happy family household. The exterior of Cantalini’s Salerno Beach in Playa del Rey has projected this image for decades – the restaurant decorated in the colors of the Italian flag is a local landmark. The interior is a surprise – sophisticated and subtly lit, with alcoves created by the irregular shape.
The menu doesn’t go beyond Neapolitan traditions – pastas, pizzas, homemade ravioli, and a few chicken, veal and seafood plates. A basket of homemade focaccia and soft Italian bread arrives as soon as you sit down, and it’s easy to absent-mindedly munch on this until you endanger your appetite.
We started a recent meal with a Caesar salad and spinach simply sautéed with olive oil, lemon and garlic. The spinach might not seem a test of a kitchen, but it is – the balance can be subtle or pummeling depending on the skill and intentions of the chef. Here the garlic was sautéed until it was sweet, with the lemon offering a hint of citrus to balance the sweetness, and the spinach cooked to doneness instead of mush. I’ve had aggressively lemony versions as well as some that emphasize garlic sharpness, which is fine if you’re in the mood for explosions on the palate, but here all was subtlety and balance.
The Caesar was also well-calibrated, Parmesan, garlic and egg playing nicely with just a bit of anchovy. Our server offered to grind pepper on it, but after one taste we waved her away – the dash that was in the dressing already was sufficient.
We paired the starters with Shannon Ridge Viognier and a Rocca Vernaccia from the by-the-glass list. I preferred the Vernaccia, similar to a Pinot Grigio with more body and flavor, but if you prefer a California-style wine then the Viognier may be your favorite. There are some good wines here at or below $10 a glass, so you can broaden your horizons on a budget.
For main courses, we decided on gnocchi, a specialty of the house, and an anchovy, spinach and mushroom pizza. (The pizza toppings were at my wife’s instigation, since she enjoys salty little fish on pizza and rarely gets to enjoy them because most of our friends don’t. When it’s just the two of us dining, nobody is offended).
My focus when it comes to pizzas, is on the crust and sauce – quality cheese counts too, as with the vegetables and meats, but the crust makes the pie. This one was thin with a crisp bottom, but with enough body that you could fold it Brooklyn-style and eat it like a calzone. The sauce had the right herbal notes with tomato and garlic, and the spinach was in the right proportion – too much and the pizza gets soggy. They weren’t stingy with the anchovies either, and the pungent scent of little fish rose from our table.
The gnocchi were more subtle, served in a garlic cream sauce with prosciutto, peas and mushrooms. I grew up thinking of gnocchi as rubbery potato starch before finally having a bowl of them that had been made correctly. I now know that they can vary in texture from cloudlike softness to chewy, and are good anywhere in between when properly cooked. These were on the lighter side – little pillows of dough with a delicate flavor and just enough texture to give your jaws something to do while you savored the sauce and other ingredients. The portion was substantial, and we took half home so we would have room for dessert.
There were wines to pair with our main courses, of course – a Valpolicella and a Cline “Cool Climate” Syrah, and this time it was the New World wine that I preferred.
The dessert menu arrived and I asked our server Juanita which items were made in-house. She recommended the tiramisu or cannoli, and since we didn’t have enough room for both we decided on the cannoli. It was a fine choice; the biscuit perfectly crisp, mascarpone filling not over-sweet, and the drizzle of bittersweet chocolate finished the flavors.
Dinner for two, with four glasses of wine, was just under $100 and worth it for a relaxing evening in surroundings with character. Cantalini’s Salerno Beach is a surprise package – the kitschy exterior hiding a cool, sophisticated restaurant, and I hope they never change it. It’s a landmark, both in the visual and culinary realms.
Cantalini’s Salerno Beach is at 193 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey – open midweek at 11:30 a.m. for lunch, dinner only on weekends during winter, brunch beginning June 16. Street parking only, wheelchair access OK. Wine and beer served, corkage $10. Website at Salernobeach.com. 310-821-0018.