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Chicago restaurant review: Italian Village's La Cantina survives and thrives in Loop


There's no mystery as to why some restaurants flourish while others flounder.  It simply boils down to consistency.  You can trust them to deliver the same gratifying grade of food, service and hospitality every meal, every day.

And among Chicago's thousands of dining choices, none has been more consistent and durable than La Cantina, one-third of the venerable Italian Village trinity that's been satisfying and surviving for a remarkable 82 years.

The Loop landmark was founded by Tuscany immigrant Alfredo Capitanini, whose third generation of family still upholds his legacy.  Grandchildren Al and Gina Capitanini now manage the bustling operation.

La Cantina is nestled in the lower level, literally in the shadows of more visible Vivere and Village, each with its own chef, menu, kitchen and bar.  Out of sight, but definitely in sync with a legion of locals and out-of-towners who relish its steaks, seafood and authentic Italian country cuisine in a secluded setting accented with walls of books and aquariums of tropical fish.  Snug, intimate booths permeated with hushed lighting and sounds are conducive to business conversation or a romantic rendezvous.

Chef Rob Duerscheidt's cooking is as Italian as it gets.  He finesses standard pasta, chicken and veal with intensifying nuances while  turning out  steaks and fish that match up favorably with those of the downtown competition.

The appetizers set the stage for an enjoyable experience.  Unlike bruschetta mounted on brittle, stale toast, this one is topped with tomatoes and trimmings over fresh, soft bread that requires delicate handling to get from the plate to the palate.

Though the term "puttanesca" evokes a hint of heat, Chef Rob puts out a linguine alla Puttanesca that won't tweak your tongue.  The toothsome tangle of al dente pasta, fresh tomato, basil, kalamata olives, capers, garlic and shrimp is cool in seasoning and subtle in succulence.

As we have noted in previous reviews, if you don't add some zip to tilapia, it can turn out bland.  The zip here is semi-sweet raspberry sauce balanced with a splash of balsamic and studded with almond flakes that transforms the fish from mild to almost wild.

For dessert, homemade tiramisu avoids a mundane tag with a creamy, nicely textured version spiked with brandy and served in a small crock.  Devilishly dark, decadent chocolate mousse is hard to resist, too.

Whoever said Italians don't eat for sustanence, they eat to have something to do while drinking wine must have been influenced by Italian Village's awesome, award-winning stockpile -- 45,000 bottles, of which 65 percent are Italian.

Service is impeccable, from the sincere welcome by suave maitre 'd Hans Kurtolus to the non-intrusive attention by smooth pros such as Luis Garcia.

La Cantina, 70 W. Monroe, Chicago, serves lunch Monday to Friday and dinner nightly.  Closed Monday.  Entrees are priced from $12.95 to $34.95.  Valet ($10) parking.  Reservations suggested.  Contact (312) 332-7007.