Savor fresh Italian classics

Chef Franco Cannava shows off two of his top-selling dishes - cheese-stuffed ravoli with fresh asparagus and Dungeness crab (left) and veal Milanese with scampi - at Sorrento Ristorante Italiano in downtown Olympia.
Chef Franco Cannava shows off two of his top-selling dishes - cheese-stuffed ravoli with fresh asparagus and Dungeness crab (left) and veal Milanese with scampi - at Sorrento Ristorante Italiano in downtown Olympia. The Olympian

Meet Franco Cannava. If you dine at his Olympia restaurant, Sorrento Ristorante Italiano, it's pretty much a given. Sorrento is Cannava and vice versa.

Chances are he’ll greet you when you walk in, visit your table several times during your meal and toss you an “Arrivederci” as you leave.

Cannava, a native of Sicily, has spent his adult life in restaurants. His mother sent him to Sorrento, Italy, when he was 14 to stay out of trouble. He ended up living there for eight years and learned the craft that would define his life.

Since then, he’s worked in restaurants in Asia, Europe and local restaurants such as Tacoma’s Europa Bistro, where he was sous chef. He opened Sorrento six years ago in a corner spot on Legion Way, adjacent to Fish Brewing Co.

Cannava doesn’t go for experimental cuisine. His menu is heavy on Italian classics and at prices well above Olive Garden level. But Cannava says the prices he charges reflect the quality ingredients he uses as well as the generous portions he serves.

Dinner began with a dense housemade bread with a chewy bite and served with garlic-infused olive oil. Entreés come with a house salad of greens, beets, tomatoes and mozzarella balls in a peppery balsamic dressing.

Cannava visited our table to list specials and take wine orders. When he heard we’d ordered a scampi appetizer, he nixed it. Instead, he said, he’d make us an appetizer sampler for $15. I’m a sucker for sampler plates, so I caved. The plate came with a Caprese salad, scampi, vegetables, olives, sun dried tomatoes and gorgonzola cheese. A wine cream sauce was drizzled here and there. The scampi were a bit oversalted but the plate was a pleasing medley of flavors and textures.

For entrees, we tried the Veal Marsala ($23.95). Tender veal was covered in a sauce that effectively sang with both sweet and savory notes. Carefully quartered mushrooms finished the presentation. The veal came with sides of fresh vegetables and spaghetti in a plum tomato sauce. A chicken version of the dish also is on the menu.

Cannava said he buys his pasta from an Italian supplier and makes the sauce fresh almost every day. While the sauce had a full-bodied tarty tomato flavor, our table found the pasta pedestrian.

A ricotta ravioli special ($22.95) was generously appointed with crab in a creamy sauce. The tender ravioli was accompanied by tomatoes and overcooked asparagus. We appreciated the fact that this was no precious little pile of pasta but rather a heaping portion.

Chicken parmesan ($17.95) was juicy, tender and refreshingly low in salt. Covered in red sauce and cheese, the various flavors worked singly and together.

On a previous visit, I had tried the cioppinno. At $27.95, it’s one of the pricier entreés, but there’s no scrimping on the halibut, prawns, calamari, clams, salmon and mussels swimming (figuratively speaking) in a zesty broth.

Sorrento offers an all-Italian wine list. Several wines by the glass sell for about $7. The pours are generous.

Three housemade desserts are on the menu. We saved the cannoli for another visit but tried the tiramisu ($6.50). It was a typical presentation but a bit on the dry side. The panna cotta ($7.50), however, was served steaming and covered in blackberries, strawberries and a Marsala wine sauce. It is a destination dessert.

“I am on the casual side,” Cannava said. It’s a bit of an understatement. Sometime during dinner, expect him to pull up a chair and spend a few minutes at your table. Behind sleepy eyes, Cannava regales with whatever story comes to mind, told with his thick accent and punctuated by a slowly building chuckle. For the socially inclined, this experience is one of the charms of dining at Sorrento. Shyer customers look like deer caught in headlights.

Halfway through our meal, I saw Cannava approaching and knew it was our turn. I suddenly regretted not buying that Rosetta Stone language program. I might be a hardworking journalist, but he is an Italian chef. I knew I would have just one chance to impress him. Cannava was amused at my pathetic attempt to speak Italian but didn’t mock me. He’s a gregarious host, laid back to the point of almost being horizontal.

Cannava said he’ll soon revamp his menu to include several $15.95 pasta entreés with a mixed green salad and dessert.

No doubt those entreés will come with the trademark table-side chat as well.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541,