There is a time for fancy-pants high-end restaurants, and there is a time for lowbrow street eats. In between, it is time for the good neighborhood restaurant, the regular haunt, the failsafe. I have a mental rolodex of such places, eateries where we can drop in at a moment’s notice and get a good, solid meal at a reasonable price. For us, in the Italian category, Il Cantuccio has been this place for a number of years. But it was not always so.
For the first few years of its existence, Il Cantuccio was a well-kept secret. It had taken over in the spot that had been a few short-lived restaurants, the kind of space that has the stench of failure on it, and so we paid it little heed at first. At the time, we were loyalists of the now-defunct Caffe Ponte Vecchio (where Bistro Annex sits today) and its occasionally surly proprietor, Corrado. But when Corrado moved to Florida to be closer to his kids, we were left without a neighborhood Italian spot.
Back then, we were living on Dolores Street, around the corner from Delfina
(which, due to its glitzy, non-native clientele, decidedly does not
qualify as a neighborhood restaurant); we had the entire Valencia
Corridor at our fingertips. Il Cantuccio was by far the closest Italian restaurant, so it made a logical choice to begin our search.
We liked the place right off the bat. Simple, unassuming, charming without being self-conscious. But the food was what kept us coming back: Excellent pastas, perfect thin-crust pizzas and some delicious traditional regional specialties, and all at a good price. Before long, we were Il Cantuccio junkies, sometimes dining there on a weekly basis. Our upstairs neighbor Kathleen went so often, she took to calling it her dining room. We became chummy with the owner, Michele, and one of the servers, Antonella (who has since moved away). We particularly enjoyed the bimonthly wine dinners, where Michele would turn out unusual and often excellent specialties.
But then, a couple of years ago, the cat got out of the bag. Il Cantuccio’s rating on Citysearch soared, and it began to get a bit of buzz. As more and more people descended, the prices crept up and quality began to slip. It was right around the time we were moving, so it became significantly less convenient for us. Even so, we had two consecutive meals there that disappointed us. So, we simply stopped going.
This summer, Kathleen, who was also disenchanted with the place, told us they were back on their game. We procrastinated getting back there, but spontaneously ended up going there with her in the evening of Dyke March. (We had eaten there that very same night the previous year, amusingly. It’s a great place to watch the march go by.)
As soon as we stepped in, one of the servers greeted us, and hemmed and hawed about a table for us, as we did not have reservations. At that moment, Michele swiveled around on his chair and saw us, stood up and shook our hands, and suddenly we had the best table in the house. Unfortunately for the party of five that was running late, we got their four-top. You snooze you lose!
Chowhound-esque disclosure: We are obviously friendly with the owner, and he occasionally comps us stuff as well as gives us favorable seating. I don’t see this as any form of conflict of interest. I’m not a professional restaurant reviewer, and for that matter he doesn’t even know I have this blog. We are merely longtime, loyal customers who have earned a few perks over the years. It’s the way of the world.
Michele is a smart restaurateur. He is constantly adapting and tightening up the menu, rearranging the restaurant to make it more efficient, and works closely with his wine distributors to net interesting and affordable Italian wines; there’s always one or two specials on the menu, and they are always worth trying. He was bringing in wines from Sicily and Sardegna before their stars rose in the local restaurant scene.
And so it was. The menu was more concise, easier to read, and yet we couldn’t figure out which dishes had been removed, and we had eaten absolutely everything on that menu several times. Some dishes are untouchable — the rigatoni alla norcina, for example, with a light cream sauce, sweet Italian sausage and walnuts, is probably the best thing that comes out of that kitchen. The braciole, pork loin with prosciutto and mozzarella, sage and rosemary, is a perfect slice of Tuscany.
Last night, on the recommendation of the server, we stuck to the specials: Tortelli stuffed with potato in a lamb ragù and maialino — pieces of pork chop with gorgonzola and pesto. Both were excellent; even the mashed potatoes that came with the maialino were exceptional.
Dessert is not the place’s strong suit, however. For my money there is exactly one worth getting, the coppa cantuccio, which is vanilla ice cream and whipped cream with marasca cherries and crumbled amaretti. DPaul, however, likes the tiramisù. I don’t care for it generally, so I’m a bad judge of theirs specifically. As a little extra sweetness, Michele dropped off a couple glasses of port and a plate of cantuccini on the table. Now that’s a dessert I can get into. I love dipping those crunchy, almondy cookies into rich, sweet wine.
We’re pleased to have our neighborhood restaurant back, even though we don’t live in the same neighborhood anymore. Sure, the prices have gone up and you do have to make reservations on weekend nights, but the price-to-value ratio remains spot-on. Salute!
3228 16th Street (between Dolores and Guerrero)