The radicchio salad arrives pink as the rosé in our midafternoon glasses. Pink as the Moroccan tiles around the flickering pizza oven, and pink as the custom La Marzocco espresso machine behind the curved bar. Its leaves are ridged and crunchy, like most self-respecting chicories. But also the color of oversize rose petals, something you might see scattered at a wedding, tossed instead in a perfectly subtle vinaigrette with pickled celery, poached quince, and almonds, then plated on a bed of whipped ricotta.
Not even Renee Erickson can marshal the forces of nature to make salad greens fall in line with her color scheme. (Local Roots Farm, the chicory savant out in Duvall, grows this unexpectedly hued variety.) But her newest spot, Willmott’s Ghost, alters convention in its own way, translating Rome’s rustic street pizza into a blush-toned crescent of a room in the undercarriage of the Amazon Spheres.
Granted, you could open a Sbarro counter in this place and it would still be a marvel. When America’s most visible company designed what is now Seattle’s nuttiest landmark—a trio of three- and four-story glass bubbles that alighted on Denny Regrade last January—it included space for a restaurant. Amazon then asked Erickson, the city’s most winsome powerhouse restaurateur, to lend warmth to its new space, and possibly to its reputation among locals. Only Amazon employees can access the engineered rain forest inside the spheres, with its 40,000 plants, various waterfalls, and artificial humidity. But Willmott’s Ghost (and Erickson’s cocktail bar, Deep Dive, at the base of an adjacent ball) is open to the public.
A nearly unmarked entrance at Sixth and Lenora barely hints at the luxe semicircular booths and mod split-globe pendants within—a Jetsonian adaptation of Erickson hallmarks like natural light, cararra marble, and pleasing ingredient tableaus. A geometric steel web and glass panes encase it all—Italian modernism with a dash of Epcot.
Fast, cheap lunch rules in Denny Regrade, though Amazon’s badged masses stream home before dinnertime. Pizza seemed an accessible fit, so Erickson channeled memories of streetside squares she inhaled on the regular while studying abroad in Rome. Head baker Ben Campbell, a guy in the vanguard of our region’s local, heirloom grain movement, added some sourdough characteristics to a sturdy, crisped crust only a beat removed from really good bread. Toppings are reasonably Roman—heavy on vegetables, some cured meat, restrained in matters of cheese and tomato sauce.
To service Amazon’s request they stay open all day, Erickson and crew tweaked Italy’s typical menu format—starters, sides, pasta-heavy primi course, and meatier secondi—and subbed pizza in place of pasta. “It’s not normal, for sure,” she says of her largely pasta-less Italian restaurant. Though authenticity quibbles seem silly when they happen beneath an artificially engineered jungle in Seattle’s urban core.
“So much olive oil!” our lunch server cackles gleefully. He’d just delivered a slice of pizza sporting a scatter of ricotta plus potatoes so besot with Liguria’s signature fat, they’re practically mashed—a double down on carbs that comes off comforting rather than bland. Next to it on the pink splatterware plate: sausage pizza with serious kick from chile flakes and preserved lemon. Divorce yourself from childhood memories of rubbery Oscar Mayer and you can dig the mortadella-topped pie, the most intriguing of the pack. This wildly underappreciated cased meat billows over blister-speckled crust like yards of fabric, piqued with orange zest and sprinkled with chopped pistachio.
Roman pizza shares more DNA with our current obsession for fancy, heaped toast than with the storied paper-thin pies of Naples (though when Erickson walks the room, she silently beseeches diners, “Please stop using a knife and fork!”). Roughly a half-dozen varieties fill the glass display counter, built in anticipation of robust takeout business.
“We thought that’s what people here would want,” says Erickson’s business partner, Jeremy Price. “They line up everywhere else” in the neighborhood. Instead diners stuck around; the restaurant shifted its format to table service, even at midday. This is a space worth ogling, plus Erickson’s food presents far better on her custom ceramics than stuffed in takeout containers. Whole pies come with stylish Italian scissors—procured, fittingly, via Amazon.
If it seems redundant to order focaccia in such a carb-centered restaurant, consider the endless R&D that Campbell, the baker, put in to reverse engineer the version in Erickson’s head: Crispy on the outside, fluffy within, with a coating she rightly terms “magic salt dust,” not to mention a righteous quantity of olive oil. As unassuming breads go, it’s straight-up remarkable. Further proof that bread-based creations are the menu’s north star—a porchetta sandwich that piles shavings of rich, roast meat inside a marvelously crusty rosetta roll.
Lunchtime, with its abundance of natural light, still feels like the main event, but dinner in this neighborhood remains a tough code to crack, and Willmott’s Ghost stays astonishingly busy, harboring Belltown residents and couples en route to a show. (The learning curve remains, however; Willmott’s halted morning coffee and pastry service after a few months.)
The pizza-pasta menu swap actually works pretty well, since a snipped-off hunk of pie leaves room to explore the rest of the menu, which has highs (the borlotti beans, a crisped half-chicken) and lows (a texture-starved plate of squash and chanterelles) and a dozen careful plates in between. The fritti menu, also a happy hour staple, asserts frying as its own art form, especially the golden gnocchi that essentially melt on your tongue. Chef de cuisine Marie Rutherford, who migrated from the Whale Wins, gives lunch dishes slight makeovers for dinner, so that seasonal pink chicory salad sports a parmesan dressing by night, along with radish, mint, and croutons.
The restaurant’s name even has its own botanical bona fides: Victorian-era horticulturist Ellen Willmott would secretly scatter seeds of a thistle-like plant in gardens that she visited. Their distinctive stalks later emerged a surprise souvenir, welcome or otherwise, of her presence. These days Erickson’s too high-profile to do anything that surreptitious, but it’s nice to know that, even inside Amazon’s well-funded bubble, she still has the ability to sow something unexpected.
► Secret Salami: Pepperoni pie, that Americana favorite, makes a cameo at happy hour, though you can request it off-menu at dinner.