La Cantina Italiana Restaurant
911 Waverly St. (Route 135), Framingham
Hours: 3:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
Accessible to the handicapped
Major credit cards accepted
La Cantina has been a neighborhood favorite on Route 135 in Framingham for more than half a century.
This Italian restaurant traces its origins back to 1947, when Fanny and Leo Mencoboni opened what they called "the area's first completely self-service super market." They worked long hours, so Fanny began cooking supper in a back room. The aroma of her spaghetti sauce tantalized customers -- and soon she was serving limited meals in half of the building.
Demand grew. In 1954, the Mencobonis expanded the menu and renovated the entire building, which they named La Cantina. Today it's about 90 percent restaurant and bar, with just a small market area where a few products are displayed and sold. Fanny and Leo are dead now, but their photos grace the walls of this comfortable, unpretentious eatery. Son Leo Jr. runs the operation, many family members still work here, and cooks use Fanny's recipes.
I never tasted Fanny's cooking, but I doubt that the current chefs have her skill. The same recipe in different hands is inevitably different. But some of the dishes are distinguished -- particularly the addictive vinegar and soy oil-based dressing served on the garden salad that comes with most meals ($2.95 if purchased separately.)
The minestrone soup ($2.25 for a small bowl) was excellent, a comforting blend of fresh vegetables in a tomato broth, with elbow macaroni cooked al dente, just right. We also enjoyed the pizza with sausage and hot cherry peppers ($9.50), which had a wonderfully thin crust and tasty homemade sausage.
In general, the fried food was disappointing -- overly breaded, too darkly fried, and too greasy. This was the problem with the fried calamari appetizer ($6), as well as the much-touted veal and eggplant parmigiana ($11.50), which had so much breading that it dominated both the veal and the eggplant, making them almost tasteless. The fried ravioli appetizer ($5) was more successful, not as heavily fried or greasy, although it would have benefited from a tomato sauce that was less bland.
Several dishes seemed to have good ingredients, but they were either not carefully prepared or oddly proportioned. For instance, the baked lasagna ($8) came with huge globs of ricotta cheese and just a hint of tomato meat sauce over the noodles; this dish should have been called baked cheese. The prime rib ($13 for a queen cut or king-sized at $15), which I ordered rare, came cooked medium at best, the meat barely even pink and certainly not red. But it was nonetheless tasty, with very good french fries, crispy and well-seasoned. (Atkins dieters can substitute whipped cauliflower.)
La Cantina serves several desserts but makes only a couple of them on the premises, such as grape-nut pudding ($2.75) and cannoli ($3.50). We tried the cannoli and thought it was very good -- with a crunchy exterior and a light, appealing ricotta filling.
Every time we visited this restaurant, it was packed, with more customers waiting to be served. Many families seemed to have several generations at the table, and children clearly were welcome. (Written on one wall were injunctions like: "Don't shout. Sit up straight. Don't play with your food.")
Service was uneven but portions were large, prices were reasonable, and the restaurant clearly has a devoted clientele. I might come here, too, if I lived nearby -- but not if I had to make a long drive.