LA LUPA, CANTON
Traditionally, Canton is locally famous for its quintessential ‘spit ‘n’ sawdust’ watering holes, its cultural diversity and home of the real ‘Kaaaiiirdiff’ accent. These days, it’s getting smarter, having seen a fair amount of cash spent on the area, despite how often we’re told the country is in bigger financial ruin than Blockbuster (‘R.I.P. in peace’, as our internet friends would say). We’d argue alternative cinema destination Chapter Arts Centre can be held partially responsible for the area’s uplift. What was once an almost ‘exclusive’ destination for real cinema enthusiasts now boasts an equally culturally diverse bar, with a huge range of beer from the Americas to the Far East – that’s almost 303 car hours, if it was possible to drive from one end to the other, fact fans!
Italians settling in Cardiff is no alien concept (we went to school with two of them and we’re deemed ‘quite old’ now); maybe it’s the delightful charm of the locals on rugby or football match days, the rolling hills of the Valleys, or simply the glorious year-round sunshine we’re blessed with, but they like it here for some reason. Even better, they show us how to cook properly, with the likes of Signór Valentino settling in the Bay, Giovanni in the Hayes and La Lupa, Roberto Raffaelli’s less famous restaurant on Cowbridge Road East in Canton.
Italians have given the world the impression that, as a nation, they’re calm, sophisticated and to be admired. While AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli is trying his very best to destroy the good PR work completed post-Roman Empire times, there are a collection of local Italio-diffians offering a fine example of how any human should conduct themselves. They’re certainly welcome in light of the faceless chains that swamp us with their sincerity, charm and dedication.
Cowbridge Road East isn’t the most glamorous of locations, but it is certainly worth visiting as a number of high quality restaurants of varying cultures appear, from American to ‘Greek’ (do kebab shops count as Greek?) to Vietnamese. While the city centre has its more secretive perks, its becoming more stale than Jonathan Ross’ fashion sense. Canton, by contrast, offers up a treat for the nose and an adventure for the taste buds, which ours certainly experienced.
Step into La Lupa and, if you’re brand-inclined, you’re greeted by a Carlsberg bar tap (that they don’t use) and a rather teasing dessert cabinet. Already we had visions of a smash and grab raid on that chocolate cake. Putting that in front of us is akin to leaving Desperate Dan in command of a batch of Clark’s Pies to be sent to the Millennium Stadium on a match day.
It’s places like these that are pleasing on the eye, as genuine creativity and care has gone into its design. Themed on slate flooring, exposed brickwork and wooden beams, the restaurant is endearing and puts you far away from Cardiff. We can’t claim its authenticity, having not been to Italy, but the rather blue statue of Michelangelo’s David gave us the impression we were about to be hosted by some dedicated Italians. Get that pecker out of your mind as you bite into your pepperoni.
The pleasing, and not so pleasing, aesthetics don’t end there. The great touch that caught our eye were the hanging meats from exposed beams, as if they were dry-curing right above our heads. The general sense of ‘family-owned Italian’ was persistent in the mis-matched crockery found about the restaurant, as if we were invited into a humble home in the suburbs of Rome. Just don’t look out the window.
Unfortunately, for all the quirks, or ‘crazy crap on the walls’ as Moe Syzlak once said, the smaller details almost mar the overall feel. The menu’s clear price increases have been unashamedly stuck over the original printed prices and suddenly the harsh fist of reality temporarily displaces you. Money isn’t exactly flowing like the guff that spills from Channel 5’s programming team at the moment, granted, but looking the part is important, no matter who you are. On the flip side, perhaps it’s a part of La Lupa’s charm, but you can’t help but wish the prices underneath were the actual ones.
Service throughout was entertaining, inviting, and actually quite fun. With a chatty server readily telling us the finer details of anything we asked, we felt extremely welcome. We took the liberty to quiz our server on puttanesca sauce, and were surprised at what it meant, rather than what it was. The sauce comprises of typical Italian ingredients (tomatoes, olives, olive oil, capers and garlic) to produce a tangy, rich flavour; but its name translates roughly to “whore’s sauce”. It’s based on the speed of which it can be produced, and the assumption that Italian prostitutes could make eat in between ‘clients’. While we admire (ish) the culinary skills of these undoubtedly talented ladies, we sympathised. Lucky, there’s McDonald’s for that these days.
A few Peronis eased us towards choosing from an array pasta, fish and pizza dishes, while the specials board tried its best to entice us towards lamb rump. Being that this is an Italian and we’re on our best behaviour, we chose the Pollo coi Funghi (despite the pizzas yelling at us), which consisted of chicken and bacon in a mushroom sauce cooked with shallots, and topped with every TV chef’s favourite, coriander.
Due to the nature of the place, we felt relaxed enough not to worry about timing, yet our meals arrived comfortably within 25 minutes as we were double-parked with Peroni and red wine, by which time we’d developed a big enough hunger to devour the dish in seconds. It was perfectly balanced, with the sweetness of the shallots complimenting the meaty mushroom sauce, combined with the reliable bacon and chicken combo, the plate disappeared faster than Silvio Burlesconi’s credibility.
As that was as easy as the aforementioned whores, we hadn’t forgotten that dessert cabinet and were quick to ask for the chocolate fudge cake. Served with a spherical scoop of vanilla ice cream and warm chocolate fudge sauce, it perfected a great evening, and one that has already been repeated.
Next time you crave Italian, don’t think Bella Italia. Unless you think London can do better than Milan.
Don’t take our word for it: