If the capital’s countless pizza and pasta chains have left you yawning, this distinctive Butler’s Wharf institution could reignite your love affair with Italian food. The dishes are hearty, the welcome genuinely warm, and the views of Tower Bridge and the Thames magical.
Cantina del Ponte is on an attractive stretch of the South Bank where it rubs shoulders with restaurants of note like Butler’s Wharf Chop House, Le Pont de la Tour and Blueprint Cafe. About 75 can dine out front under sun umbrellas enjoying spectacular views and soaking up the ambience as the world strolls past. Another 90 dine within, where one wall is taken up by a mural of an Italian market whilst another features black and white tiles laid in brick wall pattern that suggests French bistro rather than Italian trattoria. The decor’s becoming just a touch tatty in places which, if anything, actually adds to the charm.
Businessmen dominate on a weekday at lunch although there are couples and friends paying their own bills, too. The waiters are friendly, efficient and slightly formal in that delightful, terribly Italian way.
Starters include classics such as ham with fresh figs plus more modish options like smoked swordfish carpaccio with orange, lemon and yoghurt. Baked gratin scallops (£10.95) features four of the yummy little bivalve molluscs, perfectly cooked and well seasoned. Their slightly coarse, mealy coating would be delicious crisp, but isn’t. There are nicely dressed leaves and a touch of sweetness from that must-have-of-the-moment ingredient, pomegranate seeds. Mozzarella and chicory is simple, but works. It’s just a big ball of soft, creamy, quality cheese and both red and white leaves flecked with a little olive oil and seriously reduced balsamic, the sweetness of which offsets the chicory’s bitterness.
Mains are more traditional, so expect things like mushroom risotto or lasagne. Fillet of cod (£14.95) arrives theatrically in its own, pleasingly battered, lidded pan. It’s cooked to moist and flaky perfection but, as with the starter scallops, its intensely flavoured olive ‘crust’ is a soft spread. The fish sits in a generous pool of good tomato sauce, much of which is wasted as it’s not possible to fork it up. This comes with a side of exemplary spinach. Seafood spaghetti (£15.95), also in its own cooking pot, is a well-flavoured but insanely vast portion of pasta, served, authentically, drier than we Brits are used to. There are a few mussels and cockles, one big prawn and a lot of squid.
Milk chocolate cake with chilli chocolate ice cream (£7.95) is, in fact, a chocolate fondant with just the right amount of liquid centre - using milk chocolate makes a nice change from dark. The chilli in the ice cream is well-judged and the inclusion of big chocolate chips welcome, but it arrives a touch too melted. A selection of sorbets (£4.95) includes strawberry, raspberry and, less usually, banana, all of which are intensely flavoured and perfectly smooth.
Commendably, eight whites, seven reds and a rosé from the wholly Italian list are available by the glass or the 500ml carafe. Bottles start at £17.50 for a Madregale Bianco or Rosso, Terre di Chieti, Arbuzzo, 2010. Top-of-the-shop is a 2006 Chianti Classic Riserva from Fontodi in Tuscany at £78.
A 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Via Nova, Veneto (£6.75 a glass, £19.25 per carafe) has typical gooseberry notes but is a quality example. The 2010 Pinto Grigio Rose Bianca, Veneto (£5.50/£15.65) is dry yet fruity and the palest of blush pinks.
Dessert wines also delight. An intense, sweet-but-lemony muscata stands up well to the chocolate fondant, whilst a light-as-a-feather, floral and not overly sweet red Muscata is an unlikely but faultless match for the sorbet.
The Last Word
The Italian chains do a good job but when you want something more distinctive and authentic for around the same price, this is where you should head. As for the setting and view, few restaurants - chain or otherwise - can compete.