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    Bit to Do

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    The wait staff at Cena are responsible for explaining to first-time diners what at first may seem like a slightly confusing menu. The concept is a variation on the type of menu you see all over Italy: A variety of Antipasti, or appetizers, from crostini to formaggio makes up fully half the menu. Then comes the Primi, or pasta course. The Secondi course that follows is served family style, with Contorni, or the sides. Dinner ends with dessert or a cheese course. Wine? Coffee? Si, si.

    How do Italians eat like this and stay so slim? Wouldn’t we like to know. I haven’t figured it out, but my best guess is that they dine on several courses only occasionally. And I know for certain that they regularly take the time to savor quality ingredients and appreciate carefully prepared dishes. And that will not be a problem at Cena. Just let your server guide you through the menu, share the Primi course as well as the Secondi, and do as the Italians do – forget your worries for a bit and enjoy an excellent meal.

    On a recent night out, my husband and I started with the trio of crostini and fried goat cheese appetizers, and were soon bouncing in our seats with excitement. With basil pesto and truffle honey to complement them, the warm, gooey goat cheese balls melt in your mouth. The crostini, cool and crusty, were a wonderful accompaniment. The rich tuna conserva and tomato-mozzarella were our favorites.

    For our Primi course, we shared the spaghetti carbonara, made with Benton’s bacon. Maybe it’s hard to make a bad carbonara, given its rich ingredients, but this version is superb. The bacon elevated it to excellence; my husband raved and we found out the kitchen is smoking its own meats. Bravo.

    Our Secondi course was the Porchetta, a giant roasted pork shank, with spicy apples, pine nuts and raisins. The crispy skin was absolutely perfect, with a layer of sweet fat beneath. The meat was just slightly dry – the only misstep I can rightly point out from our entire dinner – but still delicious. The polenta with mushrooms, enthusiastically recommended by our server, was flavorful and rich with olive oil.

    From the lovely dessert menu, we selected the zepoles, small ricotta-filled doughnuts with a Nutella dipping sauce, and the pistachio-chocolate cake with caramel and ice cream. Don’t skip dessert! The zepoles were warm, with a crunchy exterior and silky interior. And the cake oozes a liquid chocolate filling to mix with the caramel sauce and candied nuts that surround it. It’s topped with almond ice cream, and all of that may sound like a cake that’s trying too hard, but trust me, it’s not. I am happy to report that we agreed the cake was one of the best restaurant desserts we remember having. This one needs to stay on the menu.

    Service was excellent, personable and knowledgeable. The manager stopped by our table multiple times; I’ll just say that I continue to be impressed with this management group’s skills, from the kitchen to the front of house (huge fan of Guacamole and Mussel and Burger Bar here).

    I found the basement setting intimate and romantic, though the lack of windows might feel claustrophobic for some. A black, red and white color scheme doesn’t always make for a cozy atmosphere, but I think it does cross over into romantic territory at Cena. Until they convert it into a planned charcuterie room, you may be seated in a pretty little wine bottle-lined alcove. I heard two other diners talking about a lack of cell service (one asked the server about it in a somewhat panicked manner), but I recommend seeing a weak signal in a basement restaurant as a blessing and an opportunity to log off and savor real life for an hour or two. Now, in this day and age, that is truly romantic.

    Cena is located beneath its excellent sister restaurant, Mussel and Burger Bar (enter through the same door and take the elevator down), at 9200 Taylorsville Road.

    Photo courtesy of Cena's Facebook Page

    Kachina Shaw's picture

    About Kachina Shaw

    A transplanted Hawkeye, I've now lived in Louisville longer than any other city. Can't live without: my husband and fur babies, coal-black coffee, peanut M&Ms, sunflowers, monthly vacations, books, walking paths, massage and a big purse.

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