Canali Café is a romantic neighborhood hideaway that navigates complex flavors with ease
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
The canals of Venice (our version, not the one on the Adriatic) have been a place of pilgrimage for more than 100 years, and it’s quite understandable that local Italian restaurants use the theme in their name and decor. One has a unique distinction — it’s called Canali Café, and is the only one located next to an actual canal. Oddly, Canali seems to be technically located in Marina del Rey, while a Mexican restaurant half a block away has a Venice address.
My wife and I strolled past the canal on the way to Canali, and at this stretch it’s pretty unimpressive — a lone heron strolled the muddy bank, but since we weren’t small fish or amphibians it ignored us. The restaurant is more welcoming, with a sunny outdoor patio and a dark, intimate interior. We were served good hot bread, with tapenade and butter instead of olive oil, and left to ponder our selections.
The menu is a mix of the standard pizzas and pastas with more unusual items, and for our starters we gravitated to the latter. Three vegan soups are offered daily, and we ordered an artichoke salad along with a rustic bean, cabbage and vegetable soup called riboillita. This is a Tuscan specialty rather than Venetian, a filling peasant dish that is pure comfort food. According to some sources its history goes back to medieval peasants who boiled the bread from their master’s tables along with leftover vegetables, but whenever it was invented, it’s a delight. We debated whether what we perceived as a hint of cinnamon was actually just the flavor of one of the vegetables, and had come to no conclusion when the bowl ran dry.
The menu described the salad as being made with raw artichoke hearts, hearts of palm and shaved parmesan with lemon dressing. I didn’t think you could eat raw artichoke hearts; they’re a member of the thistle family and notoriously spiky and woody. When I quizzed our server Marshall he said the artichoke hearts were very briefly blanched, which makes more sense. They were slightly fibrous but delicious, and the simple lemon and parmesan suited them nicely. The salad was attractively served with a topping of sprouts and a few decorative swirls of balsamic vinegar, a nice touch.
We ordered glasses of Gainey Sauvignon Blanc and Crios Malbec rose to start, the latter because I couldn’t remember trying a pink wine made with this grape before. It was a great summer drink, fresh and fruity — not a perfect companion to the lemony dressing, but interesting on its own merits. The by-the-glass menu here is short but well-chosen, and Marshall offered tastes so we could order intelligently. He’s a pro and responded to our questions with enthusiasm, pleased to offer information and suggestions.
For dinner we selected spaghetti puttanesca and a special of seafood risotto with pesto, tomato and avocado. I hadn’t had avocado in risotto before, and I wouldn’t have guessed that it would work this well. The mild pesto, creamy avocado and seafood were marvelous with the light arborio rice, and though the flavors were rich the dish wasn’t heavy. This special deserves a place on the regular menu, because it’s the kind of thing I could eat once a week.
The spaghetti puttanesca was the opposite of the delicate risotto, a mélange of rich, sharp flavors. The word puttanesca means “prostitute style,” a reference to the fact that the sauce based on anchovy, hot peppers, onion, olives, garlic, capers and tomato is salty, spicy, cheap and easy to make. Easy to make, yes, but not easy to make well — it’s not hard for such strong flavors to get out of balance. Canali’s was perfect, a powerful blast of flavor without any one element overwhelming the rest.
The portions were generous, but we were so happy with everything we tried that we had half of our entrees packed to go so we could see how dessert stacked up. We ordered panna cotta and carrot cake, the latter at Marshall’s suggestion, and were glad we did. The panna cotta was a light and gently sweet pudding topped with fresh whipped cream and a whisper of spice, but the carrot cake was in a class by itself. It was creamy and rich with sweet vegetable flavors offset by nuts and pastry cream, and the carrot shards on top had probably been flash-fried to crisp them. I’m not normally a fan of carrot cake and was surprised to find it on an Italian restaurant’s menu, but I’m now a fan of Canali’s.
Our meal for two with four glasses of wine (also a tasty Masi and decent Chianti, each under $10 a glass) ran $95 — remarkable for a romantic dinner only blocks from the beach. As we departed, Marshall mentioned that the restaurant had sold recently, and I hope the new owners recognize what a treasure they have. Canali is a fine restaurant that deserves to be better known, a wonderful neighborhood hideaway.
Canali Café is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends. Free parking behind the restaurant. Menu online.
Canali Café, 123 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey (310) 822-5379 canalicafe.com