When Joe and Missy Cannella opened Cannella’s Italian eatery in 1978, the Salt Lake City dining scene must have looked very, very different. It would be another 14 years until I would move to Utah, so I asked our fearless leader, John Saltas, to cast his mind back to ’78. Where did people eat out?
The New Yorker opened that year, and Saltas mentioned a number of other favorite dining spots, most long gone. Cinegrill is still here, and so are Ruth’s Diner and Lamb’s. He also fondly recalled places like Bratten’s Sea Cove, The Hawaiian, Mama Eddy’s Beanery, the original Finn’s, Bill & Nada’s, Kay & Red’s, Beau Brummel and others. Well, more than 30 years down the road, Cannella’s is still one of this city’s most beloved institutions.
For as long as I’ve been writing about food here, Cannella’s has been a can’t-miss destination for Italian-American comfort food: veal Parmesan, spaghetti & meatballs, lasagna, manicotti, clam linguine and the like. And, it’s all terrific. But in recent years, Cannella’s menu has expanded and, dare I say it, even gone a little upscale. To wit, there’s a pear, spinach and arugula salad on the menu with polenta croutons, feta and smoked-maple-syrup vinaigrette ($8.95). There’s also a Niman ranch baseball steak ($26), as well as a delicious Niman ranch all-natural beef burger ($8.50). Why, you can even get paninis now, such as the excellent turkey, cranberry, pesto and provolone ($8.50) panini. Cannella’s cuisine is evolving with the times and trends.
Now, there’s even more Cannella’s to love, with the recent opening, just one door east of Cannella’s, of Amore, which features pizza and gelato. According to founder Joe Cannella’s son, Joey, he and his dad were talking about opening a pizza place when the elder Joe suddenly passed away, 3 1/2 years ago. First, though, there was an eastward expansion: In 2007, Cannella’s took over the space next door, originally occupied by Junior’s Tavern, and installed its own bar and lounge. In the past few years, the bar at Cannella’s has become one of the friendliest drink spots in town—sort of like your own private Cheers, complete with a killer playlist of tunes that somebody with excellent taste in music put together.
While updating the restaurant, Joey Cannella spent a lot of time looking through old black-and-white family photos. It was an emotional experience, he says. The walls of Cannella’s are now filled with those lovely family photos; it’s only recently, Joey says, that he can look at them without getting choked up. He clearly misses his dad, Joe, and so does Missy, his mom. But then, so do many Cannella’s customers, who remember him fondly.
At Amore—and also at Cannella’s proper—you’ll find outstanding gelato (the Nutella and panna-cotta flavors are irresistible). But even better is the pizza, which has quickly risen to the top of my favorite local pizzas. Sources tell me that the chefs and kitchen staff went through dozens—more than 30—different pizza-crust recipes before settling on the current one. It was routine for patrons of Cannella’s bar to be given slices to sample. “Try this one!” Joey would say. Well, I hope the pizza-crust recipe is locked in tight now, because this is one of the best pizzas I’ve had anywhere.
The crust is thin and crispy, rustic, with beautiful bubbles around the edges and nicely charred here and there. The tomato sauce is also perfect: not too acidic, nor too sweet and applied in judicious amounts. My current favorite is the simple pizza with tomato sauce, cheese and housemade meatballs, with only one complaint: The meatballs are crumbled, rather than sliced like you’d find on pies back East. But, it’s a minor gripe since the pizza is simply sensational. For fancy pizza folks, there’s also a popular mushroom and arugula pizza with truffle oil.
At lunch with a friend, he encouraged me to try the Cannella’s Italian salad ($11). I don’t recall ever having a salad before that had ground Italian sausage on it, but now I’m hooked. I want sausage on all my salads.
This one is a hearty, generous batch of romaine and iceberg lettuce, topped with shredded mozzarella, sliced cucumbers and beets, garbanzos and Cannella’s delectable blue-cheese house dressing. We also enjoyed a delicious version of turkey tetrazzini, made with angel-hair pasta, roasted turkey and veggies in a silky cream sauce.
I absolutely love the aforementioned standbys like spaghetti & meatballs or linguine with clam sauce (made, servers are quick to say, with canned clams). And, those are the dishes I usually order, along with manicotti if it’s on the menu. But, returning for dinner recently, I forced myself to try some new things.
First, there was a bowl of about a dozen or so steamed black mussels (available on Friday) in a wonderful marniere type broth for a measly $5. We fought over the fresh-baked bread to soak every last drop of juice up. And, by the way, now that they have a pizza oven, many of the breads at Cannella’s are freshly baked, in-house.
Shrimp scampi ($19) features plump, tender shrimp bathed in a decadent butter and garlic sauce, with outstanding housemade gnocchi. And, I was surprised how much I liked Cannella’s rendition of Carbonara, which was thick perciatelli pasta with peas, onions, pancetta and prosciutto in a slightly creamy sauce. I didn’t so much care for the choice of chicken or shrimp with my carbonara, however, preferring mine to be unadulterated. But then, I’m a bit of a Carbonara purist, and like mine best made with raw eggs and no cream.
Finally, service at Cannella’s couldn’t be better. It reminds me of the friendly service you get at your favorite diner, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. At Cannella’s, you truly feel like a member of the family.
204 E. 500 South