- John Taylor
When you think of the word "reinvention," family-owned Italian joints that have been around for more than four decades don't typically come to mind. The mere thought of tinkering with the legacy of Joe and Missy Cannell's Italian restaurant could be considered dangerous territory among the more rigid members of the foodie sect. That said, the changes that Cannella's (204 E. 500 South, 801-355-8518, cannellas.com) has experienced under the leadership of the younger Joey Cannella are prime examples of how to correctly usher a dynasty into a new era.
When Joey Cannella assumed management after his father, Joe, passed away, he made some risky decisions that have since paid off. Perhaps most savvy among them was expanding into the space next door, which allowed ample room to incorporate a full bar. This came with a hip take on the restaurant's interior—the place communicates the vibe of a downtown speakeasy with its half-moon booths and sumptuously curated gallery walls. As Cannella's is close to Library Square, its summertime patio seating also happens to be one of the finest places to people-watch while sampling traditional Italian fare.
These favorites remain the heart and soul of Cannella's—it's easy to taste the familial love in every recipe. If you visit for lunch, the meatball sub ($10) is perhaps the most potent example of what I'm talking about. Italian families craft their meatballs with the same reverence and exclusivity as the barbecue pit masters of South Carolina, so each rendition of the classic dish has its own nuances. The meatballs at Cannella's are exactly what you want them to be, and packing them into a hoagie bun slathered with housemade marinara and melted mozzarella doesn't hurt things at all. Those unwilling to tackle a meal in which finger-licking is unavoidable will want to try out these meatballs with spaghetti ($12) or come back during dinner for the double-decker meatball and sausage entrée ($15).
I was also surprised to see a Reuben sandwich ($10) on the lunch menu—despite the cultural heritage that Italian pasta joints and Jewish delis share, it's rare to see their menus cohabitate. It lands somewhere in the middle of my own personal Reuben spectrum—not the best representation of the sandwich, but certainly not the worst. While those two sandwiches might be your best bet for lunch, Cannella's isn't a bad place to satisfy a burger craving. The Nica Joe Burger ($12) is a straightforward take, packed with caramelized onions and provolone on a ciabatta bun. But anyone who makes a meatball like these guys knows how to translate that magic into a burger.
There's nothing wrong with hitting up Cannella's for some mid-day carbs, but I think dinnertime is when the restaurant really shines. The bar is hopping, and pasta and other Italian delights are being served to tables and booths, leaving nothing but savory fragrance in their wake. Cannella's menu is replete with Italian favorites like spaghetti Bolognese ($20) and alfredo carbonara ($18), so there's really no wrong direction to take if you're in the mood for some Old World tradition.
In my book, any place that's considered an icon of Italian cuisine like Cannella's lives and dies by its lasagna. Two options are up for grabs—the meat ($18) which is a piquant orgy of sausage, meatball and pepperoni, or the Grandma's Lasagna ($16, pictured), a simpler take with mozzarella, ricotta and spinach. The meat lasagna is great because what's not to love about a lasagna that has as many meat layers as it does noodle layers? But the Grandma's is where the true talent lies. Since it doesn't rely on that onslaught of sexy Italian meats to gain your loyalty, its balanced blend of cheeses and the vibrant, fresh-tasting marinara sauce is a simple slice of pure comfort.
During a recent visit, I noticed a pumpkin ragu ($22) which I'd never seen before and decided to give it a whirl. It's an overstocked plate of rigatoni noodles doused in a rustic sauce of puréed pumpkin and chunks of braised beef. Although I thought the seasoning could have been ramped up a bit, I happily added this dish to my winter survival kit. It's a pasta dish that is unctuous and soulful enough to kick the bleak winter chill right in its withered ass.
While there are plenty of Salt Lake restaurant pioneers that have maintained success without too much physical renovation, Cannella's doesn't strike me as a place that changed just for the sake of changing. This is a clear case of strategic evolution, but the fact that it's remained true to the spirit of what made the restaurant tick in the first place is worthy of respect. Cannella's is a place where locals can order some tried and true recipes along with a few haute surprises, and it will be interesting to see what's next for this local institution.