Chew over “Molly’s Game” like a boss at Cantalini’s Salerno Beach

By Angela Matano

Cantalini’s feels like a place where elite underground poker players might lay low

Late December in Los Angeles is a festive yet stressful time for cinefiles. Movies open at alarming frequency, making it difficult to keep up with all the contenders jostling for award consideration.

As a female moviegoer and critic in the post-Weinstein reckoning, it is impossible to watch most movies without having the outside world seep into the experience. Perhaps this is true of any time society seems to be visibly shifting? Gender relations are in some sort of time-lapse photography warp speed, where social mores and personal identity seem to be changing irrevocably. I wonder if this is what feminists felt in the ’70s, or suffragettes in the teens, or Rosie the Riveters during World War II.

This is all to say that watching “Molly’s Game,” Aaron Sorkin’s new picture about the very real Molly Bloom, is that much better for having the good fortune to come out in this moment. Right on time. The story of a young woman un-cowed by male authority acts as a balm on the soul of bruised ladies everywhere. Using her wits like a machete, Bloom (Jessica Chastain) hacks away at male egos, skepticism, intimidation and sexual advances.

When we meet Bloom, she has just dashed her chances to qualify as an Olympic skier and is looking to reinvent herself, competitive spirit still intact. Reinvent she does — improbably and spectacularly as a facilitator of high-stakes underground poker games, while still in her early 20s. Initially the games attract Hollywood movie stars with a buy-in of $50,000, and later Russian billionaires with Mafia ties and a buy-in of 250,000. Bloom’s story resonates more than any fictional account ever could. The details are just too crazy to make up, which makes for quite a ride.

Chastain plays the lead with all the intelligence of a savant and the ferocity of a lion — a lion that roars a mile a minute through pages of Sorkin-ese. The backdrop, glamorous, decadent and slightly out-of-time, brings to mind Vegas and Sinatra, a world where smoking was embraced indoors and women were dames.

Does such a place exist in today’s Los Angeles, a city of acai bowls and charcoal cleanses and Meridian Flexibility?

Cantalini’s Salerno Beach Restaurant in Playa del Rey is such a place. Cozy and retro, it originated in the early ’60s and feels a bit like a speakeasy. The flavor of old school Italian-American shtick remains, but in the best way possible. Snuggle into a booth and stay for a while.

On Sunday nights there’s live music from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., and the night I went my husband described it as folk-jazz. A banjo-bass-guitar trio picked its way through standards until a vocalist emerged to breeze her way through a few tunes. It didn’t take much imagination at all to transport myself 50 years into the past.

The food at Cantalini’s reflects the vintage décor: red sauce dominates, and the mozzarella comes breaded and fried — nothing like the cloud of burratta favored in the restaurants lining Abbot Kinney. It’s the kind of joint that makes you want to order a bottle of chianti and take a break from fussing about wine.

One of the best items on the menu, also a house specialty, is the homemade ravioli. I had the seafood version with lobster cream sauce. Succulent and rich, the noodle provided just the right amount of chew to stand up to the decadence of the filling and the sweetness of the tomato.

Another great choice for dinner, the scampi diavolo featured large butterflied shrimp swimming in a spicy tomato mixture, shot through with red pepper flakes and garlic. The side of baby clams and linguini will threaten to put you in an Abruzzian torpor. Don’t let it. Save a little room for Tartufo, a limoncello ice cream truffle.

An evening of “Molly’s Game” and Cantalini’s Salerno Beach might not solve the world or Hollywood’s myriad of troubles, but it just might help you make it to the New Year.

See Molly’s Game at the AMC Dine-In Theatres Marina 6 or ArcLight Santa Monica.

Cantalini’s Salerno Beach Restaurant, 193 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey. (310) 821-0018;