Tom Douglas's Cuoco.

Image: Olivia Brent

Agrodolce

Here is James Beard award–winning chef Maria Hines’s third property—this one Sicilian, and every inch as nobly organic as her first two (Tilth, Golden Beetle). In a gracious and comfortable space warmed by the leafy limbs of a ficus tree, patrons savor the sunny citruses and olives and capers and tomatoes of Sicily—perhaps in a heaping herby salad, or a briny tangle of housemade tagliarini pasta with clams and pine nuts, or an impossibly moist half chicken topped with a caponata of Brussels sprouts and golden raisins (a dish that embodies the “sour and sweet” of Agrodolce’s name). Some dishes suffer from insufficient innovation or, at brunch especially, size—limitations of an organic mandate, perhaps, that organic food appreciators will be all too happy to overlook.

Altura

Small yet generous, modest yet gloriously self-assured—Altura (which in Italian means both “height” and “profound depth”) spins its delicate web of opposites in a candlelit space on North Broadway. Chef and owner Nathan Lockwood hails from the private dining club the Ruins, where he developed an eye for rococo decadence—one formidable angel hangs from the rafters—and a gift for making diners feel like treasured guests. Service is notably stunning. All this praise and we haven’t even gotten to the food: Northwest seasonal ingredients gone Italian rustic—then pushed through an elegance sieve. So off a weekly changing menu, slices of Muscovy duck might come fanned over red cabbage with crumbled amaretti and caramel-roasted turnip; scallops may be dusted with fennel pollen alongside grilled radicchio and fennel. In a refreshing departure from convention one can assemble three-, four-, or five-course meals from all parts of the menu—three starters, for instance, or four mains (apportioned accordingly)—along with an a la carte option. But whatever you do, don’t skip dessert.

Anchovies and Olives

Everyone looks deadly chic against the windows and cement of this minimalist corner room in Pike/Pine, but the most seafoody of Ethan Stowell’s empire (which also includes Tavolàta, How to Cook a Wolf, Staple and Fancy, and Rione XIII) is surprisingly down-to-earth and welcoming. It’s all about the food, after all: a broad crudo menu featuring the freshest local shellfish (often swimming-that-morning oysters) and rarely seen seafood flown in from exotic offshore locales, highlighted with Italian embellishments. When the kitchen’s on, it’s off the charts, presenting wonders like Arctic char over fregola pasta with nettles, currants, and speck; and trafficking in the same acerbic, briny, and tangy flavor families that dominate dinner at his other joints. (If you don’t like anchovies or olives, in other words…this may not be the place for you.)

Andaluca

The snug russet room off the lobby of the Mayflower Park Hotel presents downtown’s most intimate face for a business lunch, most convenient for a shopping stop, and one of its most alluring for an amber-lit dinner. The food can be majestic—from paella to one of the city’s best meat dishes: Cabrales-crusted tenderloin with grilled pears—prepared so lushly it can at times overreach into overrich. Though all this makes it feel like a special-occasion destination, Andaluca remains a hotel restaurant, obliged to do the near-daily breakfast-lunch-dinner duty that can at times tax service and dull a kitchen’s consistency. Considering complimentary valet parking at this central downtown address…all is forgiven. 

Artusi

A mod shot of Italy in the heart of Pike/Pine, Artusi is Cascina Spinasse’s sister aperitivo bar; stocked to the nines with grappas and amari and the stuzzichini (“little nibbles”) to offset them. Spinasse chef Jason Stratton is the artist at the helm (that’s his art on the walls too, believe it or not), presenting the occasional echo of next door—do not pass up the salsa tonnata, or tuna mayonnaise, in either house—but mostly staking out territory that’s more minimalist and contemporary than Spinasse’s. If it’s on the menu, go for the tripe with bone marrow and black truffles, in which the tender braised tripe plays a pastalike role in a superrich sauce.

Assaggio

Boldly overseen by larger-than-life proprietor Mauro Golmarvi—benevolently regarded by the cherubim and seraphim painted all over the wall and ceiling murals—Assaggio may at first seem a throwback to the more cliched conventions of Italian restaurant dining. Not so fast. There’s a reason this room, graciously high ceilinged and partitioned to resemble a European streetscape, sustains the devotion of midtown business-lunchers and evening pasta twirlers alike. (Hint: It comes out of the kitchen.) Execution is steady and impressive on classic pastas—linguine vongole, a beautifully briny capellini donato, fettucine swathed in a meaty Bolognese—and wickedly rich specials. But the Northern Italian place is quite capable of a lighter touch, as in a crisply refreshing fennel-and-green-apple salad with pecorino Romano and truffle oil. Classic Italian desserts are sumptuous.

Bar Cotto

Empire builder Ethan Stowell built this nosh bar next to his Anchovies and Olives as an overhead diffuser—but the sleek, modern Italian room with its raw bulbs and stainless tables adds up to a fine destination by itself. One can pretty affordably assemble a giddy repast from some 10 varieties of salumi, several vegetable nibbles, a half dozen bruschetta, and a dozen or so pizzas. Toppings are beautiful on the pizzas—particularly housemade guanciale, mozzarella, and a sweet dusting of fennel pollen—but the crackly-pillowy-blistery crusts are too oily. Instead, try some salumi with torta fritta (the hot, savory beignets Northern Italians melt their salumi around) along with a perky toss of, say, marinated beets with pistachios and golden raisins, and a nice, stiff (exquisite) cocktail.

Bar del Corso

Lucky Beacon Hill, that its pizzeria so embodies the soul of the neighborhood restaurant. The place bubbles, from the sheer crush of devotees inside its tidy, clean-lined quarters to its wood-fired pizza crusts—crispy and flavorful like Neapolitan with a little more tooth to the chew. These pies are the province of master pizzaiolo Jerry Corso, who delivers a short list of European antipasti, seasonal salads, and terrific Italian desserts—along with cocktails, wines, and beers—to round out the main event. If it’s on offer, don’t miss the sassy anchovy-lit puttanesca, or whatever garden special he’s got going.

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Vongole Pizza at Bar del Corso

Image: Olivia Brent 

Barolo Ristorante

Is it all the beautiful male waiters in their Italian trousers? The Murano glass chandeliers and candle-waxy romance and pulsing music? Whatever it is, Barolo (from the family who brought us the U District’s Mamma Melina) has overcome an initial lukewarm critical appraisal to achieve beloved status with the People. They crowd the long windowy room for $6 ahi carpaccio and $7 hanger steak at one of downtown’s most overcrowded happy hours, and love it up for business lunches and evening dates behind seductive sheers. The Italian food is satisfying, particularly the admirable tomato-oiled bean soups and meat entrees. And if pastas are at times too lavishly oiled, it’s all of a piece with the overall sexiness of the room.

Bizzarro Italian Cafe

If it were a stock film character, Bizzarro would be the quirky best friend with the zany personality and the novelty hair. And for these last 20-some years, that’s exactly how most serious food people have regarded the giddily alternative Wallingford ristorante, home of the red brick walls and flea market chandeliers and ceiling-suspended furniture and gilt-framed everything. But a recent revisit revealed a more serious culinary enterprise than we’d remembered: excellent handmade pappardelle pasta in a gutsy elk Bolognese; Yukon Gold gnocchi in a moist, porky sugo di maiale, exotically cinnamoned; a lamb shank, famous across Wallingford, served in a figgy demi-glace atop a polenta cake and braised kale. The food was serious and intentional—most derived, admirably, from within 300 miles—and delivered by the friendliest crew of pierced people in town. No wonder it’s so bloody hard to get a ­Saturday-night table. 

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One of the last serious dinner houses in Belltown is this square room with high-backed booths and cozy spaces, swathed in autumnal hues—a bona fide warm restaurant in a city smitten with the stark and minimal. Here the friendly welcome, rustic fare, and affordable price tags (most entrees under $20) all lack pretension. The chef’s hand stays firmly on the Italian tiller, turning out housemade pappardelle Bolognese, panzanella starring handmade mozzarella, branzino with frisee salad, and perfect pizza crust.

Cafe Juanita

It’s the classiest standby on the Eastside, where Holly Smith dances in the footsteps of the venerable Peter Dow. What he began in 1977 she refines and perfects, with high-end Northern Italian food rendered consistently and innovatively. Vivid dishes—like grilled squab with seared foie gras or mushroom-stuffed rabbit leg wrapped in pancetta and served with a chickpea crepe and fennel and green salad—showcase fastidious attention to perfect ingredients and dazzling creative verve in the kitchen, a verve that stands in appealing contrast to the slightly time-worn room. Warning: Unless you’re familiar with Kirkland’s lakeside community of Juanita, you will not find this hidden spot without help. 

Cafe Lago

This exemplary streetside Italian cafe is run with a perfectionist’s standard, from handcrafted pasta to fabled gnocchi, featherweight lasagna, and crackle-crusted wood-fired pizzas. The result is a destination restaurant masquerading as a neighborhood joint, with a neighborhood joint’s clattering aesthetic. (And miserable parking.) So take the bus already; just get there for a plate of the best butternut squash and sage ravioli you’ll ever taste. Cocktails too.
 

Cantinetta

A couple of rustic Italian ristorantes delight the crowds of Wallingford and West Bellevue with fresh, constantly rotating antipasti, contorni, housemade pastas, and mains—some rarely seen, like tortellini in brodo, and a stunning casoncelli with pancetta and amaretto crumbles—and some classic crowd-pleasers. Earthy studies in farmhouse minimalism with plank tables and wrought-iron chandeliers, the places are constantly slammed, owing about equally to the no-reservations-for-parties-of-fewer-than-six rule, the affable neighborhood ambience, the reasonable price tags, and the hard liquor. 
 

Cascina Spinasse

Here in Pike/Pine’s rustic Piedmontese farmstead (trestle tables, wood beams, wrought-iron chandeliers, lace curtains), diners feast on robust platters of slow-stewed venison with currants and buckwheat polenta or heirloom chicory salad with chunks of marinated rabbit and extraordinary aged balsamic vinegar—all lovingly oiled and seasoned. The pasta achieves density and delicacy at once, in ravioli of rapini with pine nuts or hearty cavatelli lavished with chanterelles. A plain ragù featuring rich rolled Piedmontese egg-yolk noodles called tajarin is a masterpiece, giving Seattleites their first taste of pasta the way it’s done in Italy. A neighboring bar, Artusi, lets us drink like Italians too, in a room adorned with chef Jason Stratton’s art and featuring a menu of sophisticated Italian noshes and aperitifs.


 

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Cascina Spinasse

Image: Olivia Brent

Cicchetti

Nobody spins sexy ambience out of four walls and a kitchen like Susan Kaufman, whose Italian Serafina has played stage set now to two decades of pasta-twirling foreplay. She’s done it again, in a George Suyama-designed building just across the leafy courtyard from Serafina’s back door. It’s called Cicchetti (chi-KET-tee), after the social style of small-plate dining in Venice. With the exception of the showstopping Venetian chandelier commissioned for the entryway, Cicchetti plays modern, angular sophisticate to Serafina’s older-world rusticity. And from upstairs, the sweep of the Seattle skyline will send a Manhattanesque shiver down the spine of any urbanite. Look for stunning cocktails and noshes reflecting the myriad Mediterranean influences the Moors hauled with them to Venice, from clams in fennel-saffron broth and prosciutto–goat cheese pizza to flatbread dips and crispy polenta cakes.
 

Cuoco

The 15th food-service enterprise that Seattle mega restaurateur Tom Douglas has crammed into a single square mile of downtown real estate is all about fresh pasta, crafted by hand at a station near the door and showing up on your plate in the form of items like (very) buttery cappelletti with gnocchi in nettle pesto or delicate seven-layer Bolognese lasagna. Robust secondi are better, including slices of smoky bistecca on bread salad: far and away the most fun steak is having in this town. The place is a looker, carved out of a South Lake Union brick-and-timber warehouse and sprawling into several private dining alcoves befitting different occasions and moods. Still it feels a little “seen this before,” missing the bracing originality that Douglas pretty much invented in Seattle.
 

How to Cook a Wolf

It’s Ethan Stowell’s lowest-ticket restaurant yet: a tiny neighborhood pocket on the top of Queen Anne whose barrel-vaulted ceiling and coppery light imparts a sense of a glowing hearth. The name honors M. F. K. Fisher’s 1942 paean to eating simply; a fitting benediction for a restaurant that celebrates small plates and uncomplicated pastas shimmering with earthy precision. Dishes like blush-perfect duck fanned across a plate with beets and mandarin oranges is about as wacky as Wolf’s kitchen gets; the rule tends to dishes more like a plate of orecchiette pasta with cauliflower, screaming with garlic and anchovies; or rolls of trofie pasta, intensely brightened with parsley-walnut pesto.

Il Corvo Pasta

The order-at-the-counter, lunch-only relocation of a beloved pasta popup has hit its stride, serving three to five daily plates all made from pasta cut, extruded, or hand formed in house that morning. By about 11am, chef and owner and pasta geek Mike Easton emails a photo of the headliner dish to his slavering fans—a money shot of beet spaghetti in a caramelized garlic sauce perhaps, or conchiglie seashells wet with meaty ragù, or gnocchetti with sweet corn, fresh sage, and cream—and that one will sell out by 12:30 easy. His repertoire is bottomless, his seasonality admirable, his passion winning. A couple of salads and a dessert round out the offerings, making this ticket to Italy no more than $15. 

 

Il Corvo Pasta: Mint Basil Parsley Pesto Pasta

Image: Olivia Brent 

Il Terrazzo Carmine

Nothing trendy about this timeless landmark, where the Smeraldo family—now without its patriarch, the late Carmine—has been serving sumptuous Italian classics for over two decades. If pressed, the establishment regulars will praise the peerless ossobuco, the garlicky rack of lamb, the noble cioppino—but nobody wants to cultivate competition for their favorite tables. Which, incidentally, are formally sheathed in white and arrayed handsomely in a windowed room, with a courtyard off the back for urban (um, loud) summer dining.

La Medusa

The bold, briny flavors and Moorish influences of Sicilian food were unrepresented in this town till La Medusa took a chance on Columbia City. The place is now on its third set of owners, but they’ve retained the classics—the salt cod fritters in tomato sauce bright with capers and garlic, the spaghetti con le sarde studded with sardines, raisins, pine nuts, and olives—and even bettered a few things, like crispy-crusted pizzas. In summer try the prix-fixe Market Dinners when the Columbia City Farmers Market is in full bloom. Though the restaurant can make legitimate claim to culinary pretension, it’s just-folks enough to give the kids a hunk of pizza dough on arrival. It’s small, but uncomfortable chairs keep the waits short.

La Rustica

When a fire temporarily shuttered this ristorante, West Seattleites acted like they’d lost their own homes. Their kitchens and dining rooms, anyway. La Rustica is the kind of place all its neighbors (and a few of its not-so-neighbors) regard as home away from home—so much that its size is no match for its fan base. (“Please be sensitive to waiting guests during peak hours,” the menu simpers.) Whether they praise the undersize place as “cozy” or pan it as “cramped,” they generally agree that the mottled walls, interior streetlights, and dripping grape vines cast an appealing Roman luster over the room. Straight-up Italian food completes the picture—bruschettas, pizzas, pastas, a robust toss of gnocchi and housemade sausage, a deservedly renowned lamb shank special with risotto and grilled vegetables; all served with addictive pillowy fingers of herbed garlic bread—providing happy sustenance and wistful homage to what life was like before Dr. Atkins came along and ruined everything.

La Vita è Bella Cafe and Pizzeria

The Sicilian proprietor named this Belltown cafe for the heartwarming Roberto Benigni film, and the place is warming as well—thanks to the brick oven behind the bar, the dimly lit intimacy of the terra-cotta-tiled room, and inevitable after-work revelers. Start with the just-right caprese salad of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil in extra virgin olive oil; for a zesty counterpoint try the caponata, a tangy eggplant appetizer. If the oven beckons, order one of 22 thin-crust pizzas. Otherwise, slightly spicy spaghetti di mare with tiger prawns, clams, mussels, Roma tomatoes, garlic, and white wine will serve well. And the pepper in the gnocchi al forno, served with Roma tomatoes and spinach, is moderated by chunks of fresh melty mozzarella.
 

Mondello Ristorante

Magnolians are wild about their merry trattoria, swathed in the hues of clear skies and rosy sunsets and accented with the homespun sorts of tchotchkes that give restaurants soul. Not that Mondello needed help with soul. Native Sicilians run the place, bringing a background burble of Italian to the house, which, combined with the lingua franca of classic Italian food (housemade pastas and zuppe and meaty secondi), makes Magnolia Village feel like a neighborhood in Palermo. We love the spaghetti gamberoni, served reliably hot with juicy prawns and layers of flavor, and the fish specials, lemony and elemental.
 

Osteria da Primo

You have to want to find Osteria da Primo, tucked into an anonymous wall behind an unreadable sign it shares with the Ramlyn Engraving and Sign Co. (Look for the red oval.) Clearly, lots of folks around Burien want to find it. Clearly, Burien knows Italian. Carlo Guida gives scrupulous care and minimal fuss to a menu translated as intact as the chilled desserts he flies in from Milan. He’s Calabrese, and the South shows in arancini di riso (fried, mozzarella-stuffed rice balls), trofie alla puttanesca, and piquant seafood linguine “diavolati” (the Devil likes frutti di mare with his pepper). Plus sinfully juicy chicken cotoletta and veal saltimbocca and a spinach-and-white-bean contorno that could stand alone. Add a Sicilian pizza master who knows a wood-fired crust is never to be crisped. Maybe it’s the effect of the wine-red walls, but every Southern vintage seems to taste better here.
 

Osteria la Spiga

A lot of people adored the rustic La Spiga on Broadway, and a lot of people adore its sprawling replacement on 12th. They just aren’t the same people. The menu offers the same simple housemade tagliatelle and tortelli and crisp flatbread piadina, augmented now with more meat plates and enough vegetable sides to bliss out the herbivores. It’s the setting that’s grown up, much the way freckle-faced girls grow into tawny sophisticates. Once a hangarlike garage, the renovated Piston and Ring Building stands as a shrine to urbanity in shades of concrete and warm wood, with windows, which extend from the floor to the soaring ceiling, overlooking La Spiga’s broad deck. A loft raises private parties into the rafters. Beneath it the young and the old and plenty of the black clad, along with chefs wielding sheets of fresh pasta, buzz as if they had located the very epicenter of the Capitol Hill scene. (Which they have.)

Perché No Pasta and Vino

The Greenlake branch of the late and much-mourned Queen Anne Perché No is about three times bigger than the original and determinedly child friendly, with a sunny multilevel interior, a noodle-heavy kids’ menu, the musical strains of “Funiculi Funiculà” bouncing through the room, and owners, the Kongs, who are as welcoming as long-lost relatives. Grownups will be more interested in the vast list of housemade pastas, which are sometimes just fine, like the squid-ink fettuccine with white beans, anchovies, and garlic; and other times underseasoned. You’ll also like the wine list, which includes a whopping three dozen wines by the glass. Servers, aside from those friendly Kongs, can sometimes lose control of the enormous space.

The Pink Door

A quarter century ago, it was Seattle’s original cult restaurant: The enigmatic entrance (no sign, just a pink door off Post Alley), the Parisian flea market decor, dripping chandeliers, and—after a few years—the burlesque cabaret that if you timed it right would send Tamara the Trapeze Lady soaring over your bechamel lasagna. But more than any of these charms, the city owes its fondness for the Pink Door to the deck. Along about half past 80 degrees on a July afternoon, the ordinary Pike Place Market rooftop magically transforms into a slice of sun-dappled heaven. It’ll be so packed you’ll feel lucky just to be there, swizzling a pink vodka cocktail and twirling linguine and lazily watching the sun as it crashes into Elliott Bay. In short: The Door has never been about the food, a list of pastas and seafoods that unreliably satisfy. But we dare you to stop going. 

Rione XIII

Ethan Stowell’s tribute to the delights of Roman cuisine hit the corner of 15th and Harrison so old souled and vibrant it felt essential from its first week. It’s urban cozy with medieval notes—stone walls, clerestory windows, warm wood-burning hearth—that strike a winning contrast with the mod mix of Hillsters who pop in for lunch and dinner. They’re chewing golden pizza crusts topped with things like Padrón peppers and pickled red onions; they’re spreading terrific salted housemade mozzarella and peach mostardaonto crusty toasted baguettes; they’re swooning over pastas like the smoky guanciale with chili pepper. Look for big meat plates, Roman-style gnocchi (made with semolina not potato), and a killer fried artichoke appetizer.

 

Bucatini Amatriciana at Rione XIII

 

Ristorante Machiavelli

Go to the frenetic corner of Pine and Melrose. Step inside the bustling wedge of a restaurant. Enter Brooklyn. With only 14 tables, you will wait, but Machiavelli’s shadowy little bar is a very appealing place to do it, over some people watching par excellence—the whole spectrum of Capitol Hill’s monde and demimonde—and a terrific cocktail. Seasoned servers, who can turn a table without a whiff of a rush, can likewise turn a table on to some fine saucy classics—creamy Alfredos, kickin’ marinaras, and a fine carbonara. The veal is a house specialty and a guilty pleasure; the steak, known among cognoscenti, is a triumph.
 

Salumi

Yeah, this is the place you keep hearing about: the sliver of a Pioneer Square salumeria where the Batali clan proves, sandwich after savory sandwich, that scion and New York celeb chef Mario Batali isn’t their only claim to greatness. The fresh and cured meats are why. The Batalis’ old family recipes and apprenticeship with Tuscan butchers have resulted in a product quite unlike any other in town. It’s only open at lunch—there’s a line nearly every day waiting for them to unlock the doors—for meaty two-fisters of porchetta or prosciutto or aromatic meatballs, and much more. You may eat at a communal table; probably you’ll have to take it to go. You can also carry out the coppa or prosciutto or fresh sausage. Of course  the best way to experience the glory of this food is to reserve one of the twice weekly private tables for up to 10—off a long waiting list.
 

Salvatore

When Salvatore opened its doors at the corner of 61st and Roosevelt, it was one of dozens of neighborhood Italian joints with reasonable price points and a joyful excess of chianti. Now, nearly 20 years later, Salvatore has proven itself an establishment of substance and staying power, thanks to Sal’s careful watch over every plate of clam linguine and vitello al limone that leaves his kitchen. Yep, that’s Sal over there at the grill; the guy all the regulars—and everyone’s a regular—like to saunter up to when they want extra anchovies in their aglio e olio. And a darned sure aglio e olio it’ll be, served by a crack old-school waiter with an impenetrable accent, a packed section, and a sheen of perspiration. He’s been working at least since the crowd began to gather on the sidewalk at quarter to five, and he’ll be running at least till the last diner stumbles home, drifting away on a fragrant cloud of sauteed garlic.
 

Serafina Osteria e Enoteca

It’s rustic Italian cuisine, in a setting so unabashedly sexy it makes raging lust look just a little uptight. To the strains of live jazz vocals, against a backdrop in all the sultry colors of a Tuscan twilight—or alfresco in a charming vine-entwined courtyard—lovers can feed one another lush forkfuls of dishes like pumpkin ravioli in brown butter-sage sauce or braised rabbit with parmesan polenta or vermouth-simmered Penn Cove mussels. A vibrant bar and perhaps a velvety panna cotta bookend your evening in a way that altogether explains why it was so hard to get a table.

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The patio at Serafina

Image: Amos Morgan 

Staple and Fancy Mercantile

Hard to say which is more effervescent, the place or the plates, at restaurant magnate Ethan Stowell’s (How to Cook a Wolf, Tavolàta, Anchovies and Olives, Rione XIII) giddiest enterprise. Even when its windows aren’t open onto the sidewalk, the dim, brick-lined, open-kitchen space in the historic Kolstrand Building seems to spill all its sexy cosmopolitan energy out onto Ballard Avenue. The modern Italian food is just as excited: velvety pork liver mousse spread thickly on crostini, perhaps, daurade over eggplant puree speckled with cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives, or mussel brodo with controne beans and green chilies. Flavors are big and bold—sometimes excessively so—and anchored in freshness and seasonality. And “staple” and “fancy” are more than just a nod to the old general store’s name: You can order a la carte—the staple way—or get, well, fancy, putting yourself in the kitchen’s hands for four courses of its choosing, just $50 per person, served family style to the whole table. Do we really need to tell you which one to pick?

Tavolàta

Belltown’s hottest spot is so coolly Italian it practically has a Vespa parked out front. Wait—that isa Vespa parked out front. It’s owner Ethan Stowell’s, for zipping between here and his other restaurants (How to Cook a Wolf, Anchovies and Olives, etc.) Few chefs comprehend exactly what it takes to wow a palate like Stowell does. Here he wows with fresh housemade pastas, tossed simply with elegant enhancements like veal brains and brown butter, or short ribs and parsley. Truth be told, we prefer the main dishes—richly braised meats like lamb shank with eggplant, a masterful plate of branzino—since the short-order mandate of the pastas can get the better of its bustling open kitchen when the place gets slammed. And here we should note that we’ve never seen this concrete-and-wood, lofted urban hot spot with the windows that open onto the sidewalk not slammed: The big communal table in the center fills up fast, and the energy is irresistible.
 

Tulio

This handsome white-linen, wood-paneled ristorante off the downtown Hotel Vintage Park might appear the product of a hotel-restaurant cookie cutter, from waiters with Continental accents to busers in neckties. But closer inspection rewards with inspired-Italian-with-a-flourish fare—preparations like a melting braised pork shank over fat corona beans crowned with horse-radish gremolata, crispy duck over farro studded with marinated figs, or a distinctively seasoned pasta alla-chitarra with braised pork, rosemary, and ricotta—pulled off with consistency rare in a hotel restaurant. The centrally located room is intimate, warmed by a wood-burning oven, and upstairs boasts a private room resembling an aristocrat’s library.

 

 

The sweet potato gnocchi has been on the menu since 1992. Photo via Tulio.

 

Volterra

How do a pair of Italian restaurants with the same names, menus, and owners manage to feel so very different? By virtue of addresses on rustic Ballard Ave and newfangled Kirkland. Atmospherically the Ballard original’s ruddy, romantic charm feels Tuscan while Kirkland’s glassy, generic sophistication feels more Milanese—but both of the relatively unchanging menus offer Northern Italian menus favoring the tried and true over innovation: dishes like tender nuggets of wild boar tenderloin with lush gorgonzola cream, polenta custard oozing fontina and poured over with wild mushroom ragù, or pork jowl, wild mushroom, truffle-butter pasta. Blandness can beset the kitchens (particularly Kirkland’s), and service can swerve between chilly and obsequious.

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