I HAD driven past La Cantina a thousand times and had been deceived by its modest sage green and muted window exterior.
Why I had waited so long to try out this small family-run restaurant is beyond me, but after my first visit I am certain I will be going back again and again.
La Cantina opened in November 2009, husband and wife team Mark (head chef) and Liz (owner of La Cantina) spent several years living in Rome and have travelled throughout Italy for more than 20 years, and this was completely evident when I stepped into the contemporary, light and airy dining room.
At La Cantina the focus falls on to Venetian and Roman cuisine, and having visited those cities and eaten in restaurants there I know Mark and his team had a hard act to follow.
But with their enthusiasm for good quality food, fresh and often locally sourced produce, it is no wonder the eatery has built up an amazing reputation for producing some of the best Italian food in the region.
My companion and I sat and perused the menu as we sipped on our Italian mineral water and specially selected Italian white wine, which came super chilled and tasted crisp and zingy in the mouth.
The varied choice of starters included Asparagi in Salsa (freshly poached asparagus topped with a sauce of boiled egg, olive oil, white wine vinegar, parsley and parmesan cheese) and the Baccala Montecito (creamed cod with garlic, olive oil, mayonnaise and a touch of cream on toasted bread) which both caught our attention, but it was the Granseole alla Veneziana, a fresh Venetian style crab mixed with crunchy celery, red pepper lemon and olive oil that had my mouth watering.
The unique starter was light but packed full of flavour and could have easily suited a lunchtime main course. My companion’s Italian classic of melon with prosciutto was perfectly presented in a rustic style with a side of rocket and fine parmesan shavings.
The restaurant really benefits from having a close knit team, who are seen throughout the night stopping off at tables to inform diners about the food and have chats with regulars or new visitors alike.
During our Italian feast, Liz told us about the restaurant’s successful cookery schools and wine tasting evenings, which involves their very own sommelier focusing on specific wine regions and Mark creating food to match.
From tonight’s menu we could choose calf’s liver, risotto, mixed grilled fish with mussels, corvettes, plaice langoustines an scallops or oven cooked hake Venetian style, or a selection of Roman dishes such as shoulder of lamb or Buccatini al Americana – a spicy pasta dish. I chose to do as the Sicilians do and opted for oven cooked hake on a bed of rosemary.
This blew me away. Encrusted with a topping of lightly sautéed anchovies and breadcrumbs the hake melted in my mouth and the strong rosemary aromas complemented the dish perfectly.
The plate of fresh salad with Sicilian oranges, ripe tomatoes and freshly washed lettuce and slices of crunchy baked bread took my taste buds back to Italy. A real taste sensation.
My companion chose the Scallopine di Pollo al limone which in translation is lemon chicken. But the dish is so much more than its benign translation lets on.
The thinly cut chicken breast sautéed with garlic, lemon and fresh herbs was a fragrant infusion of fresh powerful tastes that reunited the taste-buds and made the high quality of the meat and the fresh ingredients stand out a mile.
We finished our outstanding meal as only the Italians do, me with a Lavazza cappuccino and my companion an espresso.
The super friendly, quick and attentive service, as well as the comfortable yet buzzing atmosphere, could only further enhance the fantastic food we were served at La Cantina.
I might be an Italian food fanatic and therefore slightly bias, but even if you love or loathe Italian food La Cantina is not to be missed. Believe me, you will fall under the Italian spell after you visit this little eatery, aka Chester’s best kept secret.