If you live in Canberra it is very likely you have eaten at Santa Lucia, either in Kingston, or at the newer location in the Swinger Hill shops.
The Catanzariti family started feeding the ACT population almost 40 years ago, after they arrived from Calabria in the 1950s. It was the first Italian restaurant in town when it opened in 1975, and has remained one of the best loved.
Pleasantly free of artifice and almost blind to food fashion, the place has red-checked table cloths and the kind of antipasto, pasta, veal salad menu that makes for familiar reading.
We arrive on a cold Canberra night to be reminded of the warmth and democratic feel of the place. Behind us are a couple sneaking in an intimate weeknight dinner, alongside us a large table with kids and grandparents all happily tucking in to pasta and salad. At the back a group of black-clad kids with shaved-heads and multiple piercings try, unsuccessfully, to maintain severe looks as they eat like any other always-hungry teen. There's no picking at dressing-free salads here.
Service is relaxed and personable, but also efficient, with menus, drinks, and food all on the table quickly, and good advice readily offered.
A generous antipasto gets us under way ($14.50/$21.50) with good quality sopressa salami and pancetta streaked with chilli. Fresh mozzarella and marinated vegetables cut through the richness. There is nothing revolutionary here, no pushing the boundaries, just fresh fare, generously served.
The wine list is a short, workmanlike document, with an emphasis on value. All 10 Australian wines have tasting notes for guidance, and are available by the glass and bottle, with house wine starting at $4.50 a glass. The selections seem a little haphazard, but a very good Delatite riesling is a steal at $7 a glass. Four Italian wines are also listed - a Chianti Classico, frascati, lambrusco and valpolicella - as well as a couple of sparklings.
A starter of salmon carpaccio ($14.50/$21.50) is thin slices of subtly smoked salmon, marinated in garlic, capers, olive oil and lemon. This all sounds a little much, but it is not. The salmon is juicy with the good olive oil, with a great tang of lemon and hit of salt from the capers, all adding to a clean, satisfying dish. This would make a great light lunch with a slice of fresh bread.
A special seafood soup ($14.50) is tomato-based and crammed full of mussels, calamari and prawns. It is warm and hearty, if not refined - a successful if not startling dish.
Long before lamb shanks were rediscovered by the likes of Jamie Oliver, they were a standard special here ($27.50). The dish arrives, two huge, glossy shanks, fall-off the-bone tender and full of the complexity of flavour that comes with long, slow, skilled cooking, with good sopping up juices.
A side salad of rocket, red onion and parmesan, serves as a good contrast, and works well with all the mains.
Saltimbocca is veal fillets skewered with prosciutto, and is a similarly generous dish. A clutch of fillets sit atop of little mound of good vegetables, and are well flavoured, if not quite meltingly tender. The lemon and sage sauce is mild and pleasant, and rounds out the dish nicely.
Kids are well catered for here, with a good range of options at good prices. A bowl of pasta with butter will set you back $5, fettucine carbonara $8, and fish and/or veal schnitzel and chips costs $10. Drinks are included, and ice cream adds $2 to the bill.
The classic egg and marsala dessert zabaglione is served in the old style, in a large cocktail glass, and our neighbours exercise real restraint and do not lick the glass.
We opt for tiramisu ($11), which is more than big enough to share. This now almost ubiquitous dessert is often not what it should be, but that is not the case here. Relatively light on the coffee and liquor that can really give it a kick, this milder version is soft, rich and very easy to eat. The classic layers of sponge finger are soft and light alternating with rich mascarpone cream. A garnish of cream is entirely redundant.
Canberrans have been well served by the Catanzaritis, who have provided wholesome family food and a sense of warmth and hospitality over 37 years. They are part of the fabric of the ACT and run the kind of restaurant everyone would like to have around the corner.
Address: Swinger Hill Shops, 84 Ainsworth Street, Mawson
Phone: 6286 2271
Owner: Pasquale Catanzariti
Chefs: Pasquale and Francesca Catanzariti
Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Sunday 10am-2pm, dinner Tuesday-Saturday 6pm-9.30pm
Licensed: Yes, plus BYO, corkage $4.50 a bottle
Vegetarian: A good range
To Pay: American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Eftpos
Wheelchair access: Yes, to restaurant and toilets
Wine list: 2/4
Value for money: 3/4
Summary: Santa Lucia has been offering honest, unpretentious, nourishing Italian fare to Canberrans for generations.
11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end. 14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant.
(The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score.)
Catriona Jackson is director of communications and external liaison at the Australian National University and a food writer.