“My dream places me inside a brick-walled wine cellar, or cantinetta, fashioned into an upscale trattoria, where I’m happily sipping Barolo from a globed glass. Torpedoes of cured meat hang from the ceiling in a glass-enclosed aging room, table vases bloom with elegant breadstick stems and we snack on warmed, fat Sicilian olives. I’m in full view of the kitchen’s heart, the 700-degree, wood-fired oven, where three black-hatted, squatty men with no arm hair perform a balletic ritual near the narrow opening that releases vapors of heat and wisps of wood smoke.” – Mike Hale, Monterey Herald
Carmel is a tourist mecca throughout the year but during the middle of August, it also overflows with droves of car people. Consequently, all of the really good restaurants (of which there are many) are fully booked almost every night. Several years ago, we learned to make dinner reservations not later than early June. We tend to be creatures of habit and go to many of the same places each year so there are not a lot of discussions trying to decide where to eat.
Cantinetta Luca has been one of our favorite dinner locations for many years. This fine Italian restaurant features an open kitchen with a wood-fired oven and a glassed-in case that shows off their outstanding housemade salumi – they also have an adjacent Italian deli, bakery and gourmet market, Salumeria Luca. Everything about Luca is high style – from the decor to the clientele (especially in August). It can get lively and pretty noisy at times and the service can be a bit frenetic. Still, in all, that is part of the fun of the week and the locale. When making reservations, we always request one of the two front tables that are out of the way of bustling waiters, the steady stream of customers, and, coincidentally, give us a front row seat to the Dolores Street fashion parade. For the last two years, we’ve lucked out.
Aaron Rayor joined Luca as Chef in July, just before our visit. Chef Rayor was most recently at Bestia in Los Angeles. Bestia is considered by many LA food critics as “one of the most cutting-edge Italian restaurants in that community.” His career also included stints at Salt’s Cure and the remarkable restaurant of Chef Dan Barber, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I am sure that during our evening, most recipes reflected the previous chef. Next year it will be interesting to see what, if any, changes are incorporated.
One of my favorite dishes at Cantinetta Luca is Tagliatelle Salumi Bolognese. San Francisco food writer, Michael Bauer, said that this dish is “second to none”. This version is certainly among the best that I have tasted (but I haven’t yet tried the original in Bologna). There is simply no comparison between fresh house-made pasta with imported Caputo “00” flour and fresh eggs vs. the boxes of dried pasta that is available in the store.
A dish which was new (to us) this year was their North Cove Clams with ‘Nduja Aioli and grilled sourdough bread. ‘Nduja is typically a spicy, spreadable pork sausage that tastes like fine salami and is a specialty of Calabria, Italy. Here it is the primary flavoring ingredient for their aioli. The dish is listed as an antipasto but Karel had it for her entrée and was more than happy with the serving portion. Fresh clams were steamed in an herby broth that not only flavored the clams but provided a great sauce for dunking the grilled bread.
Desserts are always a treat here. Each year always brings some new choices. My favorite for this evening was their Budino di Ciocolato. The dark chocolate custard was served with whipped cream and Amarena Cherries. I love good dark chocolate and this one was hard to beat.
My friend ordered a Meyer Lemon Semifreddo that was served with blueberries and pistachio crumbs. Semifreddo is a semi-frozen dessert with the texture of frozen mousse. It is usually made with eggs, sugar, and cream. He, of course, declared his choice the best. Needless to say, they were both delicious.
After dinner, we had to walk (more than) several blocks to our car. You will never find a parking place on Ocean Avenue unless you are driving the latest model Ferrari in which case you will find a red carpet laid out for you (literally – a red carpet!). The stroll was a good thing though; we needed to walk off some of that rich meal. The evening was quite pleasant because even in August, the night air was cool – don’t forget we were in Carmel.