Maria Hines’s Sicilian restaurant is every inch as nobly organic as the James Beard award–winning chef's groundbreaking original, Tilth. 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 impeccable 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 forgive.
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). But whatever you do, don’t skip dessert.
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 Italian regional antipasti, seasonal salads, and terrific Italian desserts. As for drinks, there’s wine, beer, and cocktails—those skew Italian, too. Though the most Italian thing in the place might be its back patio on which one sips an Aperol spritz in the sunshine.
In Wallingford, Bizzarro’s awning out front remains unchanged since the place opened in 1986. The decor is the conversation piece. Vintage tandem bike, oversize dog statue in a cart, inverted year-round Christmas tree—more stuff hangs from the ceiling than most restaurants have on their walls. Small plates to share? Not on this menu. Every dish is an appetizer or an entree, and every entree comes with a salad. The bread, ferried to the table soon after you sit down, is free. Sunday is always spaghetti-and-meatballs night; the snap pea carbonara is always on the menu, seasons be damned. Sometimes the best plates of pasta are found in rooms that don’t change, atop laminated tablecloths, paired with one of two wine varietals—red or white. Places as comfortable as the food itself.
Windy City Pie was the best deep dish in town—until it spun off this destination for sourdough-crust pies inside Beacon Hill’s Clock-Out Lounge. It’s all that crisped cheese goodness, now with a saltier, slightly tangy crust, a style that hovers somewhere between Chicago and Detroit. The Pepperoni Paint Job, with its dual layers of meat, is a great introduction, but owner Dave Lichterman’s experimental specials, like a slice inspired by biscuits and gravy, are bizarre and wonderful.
What began as Hitchcock’s weekly pizza popup is now a soaring, companionable restaurant on Bainbridge’s Winslow Way. Flour, cheese, tomatoes, and technique hew to Naples tradition, but toppings take some cues from Hitchcock Deli’s hearty sandwiches—bursting with whatever’s in season, and often finished with paper-thin ribbons of cured, fatty flesh of owner Brendan McGill’s own Mangalitsa hogs.
James Beard award–winning owner and chef Holly Smith has long produced the classiest Northern Italian innovations on the Eastside, now in sleekly updated midcentury quarters befitting the distinction and white-tablecloth ideal for special occasions. Smith has a sixth sense for conception, so Anderson Valley rack of lamb might be paired with green beans in a swell idea of a bagna cauda sauce and studded with thyme-roasted blackberries. But much of the menu is sure-handed classics, like richly sauced housemade pastas, or silky burrata with belgian endives and walnut anchovy salsa. Executions sometimes falter, but not so anyone notices, and desserts approach the perfect. It helps to be familiar with Kirkland’s lakeside community of Juanita, though renovations to this hidden spot have made it easier to find.
This exemplary streetside Italian cafe on Montlake Boulevard 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 lack of 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.
The rustic Italian farmstead with the trestle tables and wrought iron chandeliers serves the best pasta in Pike/Pine, even Seattle: rich hand-cut Piedmontese egg-yolk noodles, tajarin, which clutch the ragu or the sage butter silkenly. The pastas all achieve density and delicacy at once—ravioli of rapini with pine nuts, maybe, or hearty cavatelli with chanterelles—but meat dishes, from rabbit to angelic heritage pork, can also be extraordinary. Think earthy, long stewed, rough cut, boldly flavored—and careful. Neighboring bar, Artusi, lets us drink like Italians too, with a menu of sophisticated Italian noshes and aperitifs.
Unlike the timeworn cliffside villages of Liguria that inspire its name, this rambling space is sleek and modern, a Westlake Ave spot from the folks behind Barolo, not even a block away. The lengthy menu is a lens into the five historic fishing villages along Italy’s Riviera: tender cuttlefish with braised greens, legs of charred octopus atop silky mashed potatoes, silver-skinned anchovy fillets laid over ricotta and crusty bread, a raw oyster bar for the bivalve obsessed. Pastas are housemade, naturally, and there’s a 32-ounce tomahawk bistecca for the carnivores. The pizzas that hail from the stone oven are mostly classic, but one unlikely (and surprisingly enjoyable) option channels New England clam chowder with diced potatoes, calamari, and a spicy garlic cream sauce.
This Ballard haunt has been open for nearly a decade, and still people wait upwards of an hour for simple combos of carefully sourced, often seasonal toppings on char-bubbled crusts. While Delancey’s name and pizza style nod to New York, chef Brandon Pettit’s pillowy-crackly crusted pie with untempered tomato brightness and pairings of Zoe’s bacon, cremini mushrooms, basil, have become a Seattle institution. Impeccable seasonal salads and those bittersweet chocolate chip cookies dusted with gray salt only seal the deal.
Don’t underestimate this order-at-the-counter, lunch-only joint; its pasta is legitimately transcendent, and quantum leaps ahead of the field in creativity. On weekday mornings pasta geek Mike Easton blogs photos of that day’s handful of seasonal choices—maybe creste di gallo pasta with braised Treviso, garlic, chilies, and olives; maybe gnocchetti with sweet corn and sage—which pulls Pioneer Square office workers in droves. Easton’s 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 $20. Arrive early; lines can be epic.
Nothing trendy about this timeless landmark, where the family of Carmine Smeraldo has been serving sumptuous Italian classics for over three decades. If pressed, the establishment regulars will praise the peerless osso buco, 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. Down the hall, enter the most elegant bar in Pioneer Square, all light hues and ladylike linens. The food is its equal—classics like beet salad and octopus risotto and buttery lamb chops, served as small plates—with an amaro collection headlining at the bar.
Brian Clevenger still preps pasta the way he learned at San Francisco’s esteemed Delfina—housemade noodles cook briefly in simmering water, but mostly in the saute pan with the sauce, and a few ladles of pasta water for good measure. The difference is subtle, but there’s an almost creamy dimension to the strozzapreti in a ragù of pork shank, an extra richness to the spaghetti that crackles with anchovy and chili flakes. Like its sibling, Vendemmia, Clevenger’s second restaurant in West Seattle is all about pasta, fish, and vegetables—with more pasta and more tables. Some dishes, like hamachi crudo or a salad of dungeness crab and snap peas feel more Northwest than Italian. Then again, isn’t using the best of what’s nearby and in season the most Italian approach of all?
There’s an Italian miracle happening on Ballard Ave: Two conjoined old houses, the city’s oldest intact residences in fact, are reborn as a stylishly atmospheric warren of dining rooms, serving memorable pastas (the spaghetti bolognese…ye gods), a perfectly dressed caesar, an osso bucco whose rich sauce, topped with a gremolata of orange and sage, could be served in a bowl on its own. The food packs all the hearty pomp of an old-school Italian American restaurant, reimagined through the prism of Northwest seasons. Add to that the attentively informal service—and have we mentioned the space?
Lark’s original home on 12th Ave is now a casual pizza tavern, serving John Sundstrom’s interpretation of pizza: sturdy wood-fired crusts somehow both chewy and crunchy, topped with cool seasonal combos like chickpea pesto and feta, or padrone peppers, chorizo, and cotija. Pies skew vegetarian, but meat lovers get to choose from the add-on menu, which goes way beyond the traditional salami and sausage with toppings like crispy chicken skins, oxtail, and spicy nduja. There’s a kid’s menu and some pies come by the slice.
Ethan Stowell’s eldest restaurant is also his most overtly Italian, a house of 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 that could come in the form of lamb shank with eggplant or 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 the concrete-and-wood, lofted urban hotspot with the windows that open onto the Second Avenue sidewalk not slammed: The big communal table in the center fills up fast, and the energy is irresistible. The larger second location on Pike/Pine replicates the original’s vibe, but adds a patio.
Madrona’s a tough neighborhood for a restaurant to crack; the key seems to be pasta, perhaps an old-school tangle of spaghetti wherein childhood comfort collides with tomato sauce livened with basil and chili flakes. And combos like roast carrots and creme fraiche, or crunchy endive with snap peas and Dungeness crab: simple, but more elegant in one another’s company. Vendemmia’s a little Italian, a little Northwest; equally game for birthday dinners or spontaneous Tuesday nights.