The symptoms—razor-thin meats melting on the tongue, hip ambiance crackling throughout the parlor and Italian Chianti charming the palate—make the diagnosis easy: I’m cured. The same goes for the Breasola salami—it’s cured in house. And that delicacy, the atmosphere and the other authentic Italian epicurea at Cantinetta Luca do have healing powers: Bring what ails you, emerge satiated and enlivened.
For those familiar with the brain trust behind Luca—Walter Manzke and David Fink, the same industry experts who launched the celebrated L’ Abuerge Carmel and Bouchée—the effect certainly doesn’t come as a shock.
The biggest difference from those Carmel classics and Luca is in the young, big-city chic of the place: The tiny-tiled domed ceilings, the bustling bar and dining area, and the general roar of the place are a departure from the 12-table L’ Albuerge and intimate Bouchée. It feels more new-city San Francisco than old-school Carmel. Kathleen Fink gets credit for the lively and colorful setting.
The old wooden bar from Toots Lagoon, which occupied the space an era ago, has been recut to fit the new room. A sleek wine rack flanks the back room. Thomas Peres did the wine list with GM Giuseppe Panzuto and manager-sommelier Christopher Whaley. It’s impressive, with all-Italian wines drawn from all over the old country, and a profound addition to the local wine scene. Twenty-five wines are available by taste, glass, or half-carafe. The list of 250 (and growing) ranges from $18 to $500-plus.
Our humble group looked to loosen the cork on a Dolcetto d’ Alba Serra Boella 2005, a recommendation from Whaley for a wine that could satisfy for $20-$30. It definitely did.
At a place that specializes in antipasti, the salami was a perfect way to start. From a selection of starters that include king prawns, calamari-arugula bruschetta, fried zucchini, and yellowtail carpaccio, fellow Big Sur day trippers Dave, Lihi, Buck and I also selected the Eggplant Caponata ($5) and the Caseficio Gioia Burrata Cheese ($7).
In ascending order of amazement, the caponata offered the correct pillowy stratum of melting cheese and soft meaty eggplant, shuttled out in a small sizzling skillet. The brilliantly creamy cheese was moist, soft and uplifting, and went well with some smooth olive oil and sea salt on thin crostini chips. (Fresh bread and olive tapenade served on a wood cutting board was tasty, too.)
The Breasola ($7/solo; $18/for a selection of six artisan meats), meanwhile, was an experience. Laid out stylishly in tracing-paper-thin slices, each shaving lingered long enough on the tongue to channel sublime tones of mellow salami, subtle saltiness and dynamic spices before melting. Its nuanced finish rivaled that of a good wine.
A leisurely pace administered by our polished server Jose led next to the salad stage, where the four of us shared two Tricolores ($8), which came family style in big white bowls. Fresh bitter greens mingled with walnuts, toothpick-sized pear spears, and baby boulders of deliciously stinky Gorgonzola, all lightly sauced in a honey vinaigrette. The bowls proved a good size for two to share.
A light family-style main course followed. Vegetarians Dave and Lihi split the Pumpkin Ravioli ($12), bypassing other savory meat-free possibilities like the Funghi pizza (chanterelles, caramelized onions and fontina cheese, $15) and the Ricotta Cheese Ravioli (with sun gold tomatoes and basil pesto, $11).
I’ve learned it would be hard to go wrong—I’m told by several reliable gourmetaholics that the pizzas and other pastas are excellent—and Fink reports that the Pumpkin Ravioli is a best seller.
Buck and I chose the Wood-Oven Roast Sonoma Chicken ($24/half; $44/whole) over the Whole Roasted Mediterranean Sea Bass (with “melted” tomatoes, lemon and olive oil, $42) and the recommended Bistecca alla Fiorentina (24 ounces of T-bone, $56).
The ravioli was up to our server’s praise: The sauce was thick and rich, with its brown-butter sweetness and trace sage and wine mustard elements giving it intriguing life. The portion was small, though, with five sand dollar-sized pasta pockets in an oversized dish, so a hungrier group should go for more plates.
The chicken was a standout befitting its preparation—according to José the chef vacuum-packs it with rosemary and olive oil and boils it for an hour before grilling it and finishing it in the oven. It made for a tender texture and great rosemary flavor. A skillet of perfect Broccoli Rabe ($6 a la carte), with soft and sweet golden raisins, pine nuts, garlic and red chiles, filled in nicely on the side.
The satisfaction was sweet enough to preclude a dessert, and precipitate another easy diagnosis: Even in a crowded Carmel restaurant scene, the curative Cantinetta will long stand out.
Dolores between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel. • Bar: 3:30pm-close daily; Restaurant: 5-9:30pm daily, Fri-Sat until 10pm. • 625-6500.