Last night I took a drive down to Middletown with two friends (both Italian-Americans), one of whom had been urging me for some time to try the Cantina, which is in the tiny basement underneath the Italian-American Club on Court Street. After urging me to eat a light lunch, my friend cautioned me, "this place is great, but it's old school." While the caution was not needed (I love the old school) the recommendation was certainly appreciated and, as it turned out, quite accurate.
From the outside the Cantina doesn't look like much (actually, it doesn't look like anything, because there's just a small sign and a doorway at the side of the club), and when you walk down the stairs your first impression is confirmed as you enter into a small and somewhat cramped basement with cinder block walls. That said, the place is actually pretty d*mn charming, in an old-fashioned sort of way.
The walls are painted a nice clean white and adorned with pictures and grape leaves hand painted on the wall in different colors. Throw in artificial grape leaves running along the beams of the ceiling, old-fashioned red leather booths, and tables covered in white tablecloths with old-fashioned cutlery and white linen napkins and you feel like you are back in 1970 (adding to the ambiance the friend who brought us quipped, "so, I was at this wedding in Waterbury on Saturday and some guy was trying to explain to me why Good Fellas is a better movie than the Godfather. I asked him, 'are you crazy!?!'").
We started with the plate of antipasti pictured, which had some nice fresh mozzarella, delicious (but mild and not too salty) prosciutto, olives, and sweet peppers (which were OK, but not up to either the mozzarella or the prosciutto. There were also those monstrous hot peppers you see. My friends passed on those, but being the HFG, I had to at least try them. I managed to eat about half of one before the extreme heat got to me. Still, it was delicious.
For dinner, my friend who brought us had the veal milanese ($21.95). First, and in the interest of full disclosure, the portion was massive and probably close to twice as large as what you'd get at most restaurants. My friend can eat, and he only managed to get about 3/4 of the way through his dinner.
Second, it was delicious (and probably an heart attack waiting to happen). The veal cutlet was breaded, and prepared with a generous amount of mozzarella, prosciutto, and peppers in a sauce made from stock, butter, and garlic. This a very traditional dish (my friend being even more old school than I even substituted out the peppers in favor of tomatoes, which is the traditional way to prepare the dish). Needless to say, when I tasted it, the flavors were basic, but very rich and well-blended. Given the portion and the richness of the food, it was more than a meal but quite delicious.
My other friend had the veal eggplant sorrentino ($21.50). This dish is made by breading eggplant and sauteing the veal and than putting a slice of prosciutto, the eggplant, some marinara sauce, and some mozzarella on the veal cutlet and cooking it in the oven until the mozzarella has melted.
Again, the cutlet was enormous (my other friend can also eat but he only got about 1/2 through his dinner and had to bring the rest home) and it was delicious. The eggplant was neither over breaded nor overcooked and there was just enough marinara sauce and cheese to compliment, but not overwhelm the dish. In fact, I thought the veal sorrentino was the best of the three entrees we ordered, and that is saying something because the veal milanese was really good. Still, however, my other friend's dinner was also quite rich.
I had the gnocchi ($21.50). While I don't think it was quite up to the level of either of the veal dishes, it was still very good. The portion was more than generous (though not quite as enormous as either of the veal plates) and the gnocchi themselves seemed pretty fresh and shaped irregularly (which is pretty good evidence they were made by hand). The potato filling was good and certainly didn't overwhelm the taste of the pasta itself. Cooked in a very rich sauce made with stock, garlic, and butter, they were delicious.
If I have one criticism of the food, it is that it is so rich. If you are not used to eating rich foods with lots of butter, you might have a hard time with your dinner, though exercising some portion control (like promising yourself you are only going to have 1/2 of your enormous veal cutlet and bring the other half home) will help a lot.
We also shared a bottle of chianti ruffino ($28), which was adequate for our purposes, though not exactly memorable.
We also had some bread which, while a bit slow to arrive, was hot and right out of the oven.
I don't know whether the Cantina serves dessert (I didn't see any on the dinner menu), but none of us was in any position to order any. We were all stuffed and very satisfied.
As a nice treat at the end, the father of my friend who brought us suddenly appeared from the kitchen and said "come on, I'll introduce you to Tomasso." Tomasso is the proprietor and chef and must be an incredibly hard worker because he seemed to be alone and doing all the cooking himself. While his kitchen was very old-fashioned (including a cast-iron stove) it was clean and well-organized.
For his part, Tomasso was friendly and extremely appreciative of our patronage. He even offered us some sambuca, but it was getting late and we had to drive back to Hartford.
If I have any serious criticism of the Cantina it's that the service is OK, but certainly not great. Our waitress was friendly, but not overly attentive and I don't think she moved her tables very efficiently. Still, with food this good, that's a minor issue and it didn't detract from the overall experience.The Cantina certainly isn't fine dining. It's a super-old fashioned place that serves traditional Italian-American food in massive quantities at a reasonable price. It isn't fancy, and it's not perfect, but the food is delicious and I plan on taking Mrs. HFG there sometime soon.
As you might expect, the Cantina neither has, nor appears to need, a website. But here are some links to reviews and a map - http://www.yelp.com/biz/cantina-cafe-ristorante-middletown; http://www.menuism.com/restaurants/cantina-ristorante-middletown-122381; http://restaurants.uptake.com/connecticut/middletown/cantina_cafe_ristorante_15283081.html