Until the restaurant named for Ernest Hemingway’s real-life heartbreak brought its thickly atmospheric self to North Capitol Hill, Seattle had, weirdly, no youthfully unconventional Italian restaurants. (The Pink Door has the soul but establishment prices, Machiavelli has the clientele but a traditional menu, Bizzarro’s got both—but, gaaah, no pizza!) Mercifully this got rectified when a team including Jason Lajeunesse (a partner in Lost Lake, Comet Tavern, Grim’s, and Big Mario’s Pizza) planted Ernest Loves Agnes in the noble husk of the Kingfish Cafe on 19th. In came a frisky menu including lots of vegetal starters like spicy-sweet harissa carrots with cool yogurt for dredging, salads to top with—o inspiration!—a la carte condiments like porcini salt or truffle oil or 10-year balsamic, a handful of pastas (only some of which are red sauced) and entrees, and eight or so genuinely intriguing pizzas like Tuscan kale and Mama Lil’s peppers and a meat pie where coppa, speck, and hot Italian sausage arrive drizzled with spicy honey.
If execution is scattershot—mushy potato toppings, a warming counter that does the to-go slices no favors, not enough of that honey drizzle—there are plenty of positives to redeem your attention, from golden pizza crusts compromising nicely between crisp and pillowy to a beautiful bowl of brown butter cavatelli pasta loaded with wild mushrooms.
The cocktails, of course, Hemingway would wholly endorse. But the deeper draw is the timeless sense of place Lajeunesse and crew have spun into these rooms: the restaurant side filled with young families and sweet waiters, with a cozy marinara-colored alcove for privacy in back; the bar side all vintage wood and beautiful booze and palm fronds and plantation shutters, twinkling as if under Cuban starlight. It’s no wonder everyone’s here, from kids to couples to slackers to, on my visits anyway, a notable abundance of men. Maybe they’re in search of their inner Papa. Or maybe they agree there’s no warmer place to watch February hurl itself against the windows.