Our server so clearly reveled in the suspense. “I can’t tell you what’s coming, because I don’t really know,” he exclaimed with jaunty glee after he sidled up to our table pushing a handsome brown cart of small dishes. Beyond him, other staff members circulated with their own carts, their own set of snacks. “But I can tell you what I have.”
In that moment, the stakes felt inordinately high. The chicken liver mousse or an orange ramekin filled with spicy ’nduja sausage? Would I regret not trying one of these? Is something better coming on the next cart?
I grabbed both dishes in a rash moment of spreadable meat FOMO. The server ticked the transaction off on a little note card mounted on a wood block that sat on the edge of our table, then wheeled off with his cart to tempt the next two-top.
The cavern of a space on North Broadway that’s now home to Carrello spent the last 10 years as Poppy, a restaurant as seminally Northwest as a sasquatch drinking from a reusable straw. It’s amazing how fast a hallowed Scandi-styled dining room becomes rustic and Italian with help from some oak tables and an actual suit of armor. When chef Jerry Traunfeld closed Poppy to move to Santa Barbara, he handed the space over to Nathan Lockwood, chef-owner of Altura, directly across the street.
Lockwood was grappling with a peculiarly Seattle phenomenon. Altura burst onto the dining landscape in 2011 with a precision take on rustic Italian flavors, but customer preference gradually nudged his menu away from grilled meats and full-size pastas into a wholesale embrace of the tasting menu. Let’s hope he and Maximillian Petty of Eden Hill occasionally meet up in some low-lit dive to compare notes. Both men recently opened new places designed to revive the original menus from their first restaurants. In Lockwood’s case, he didn’t reinvent the wheel when he brought back bygone dishes from Altura for Carrello’s menu. He did, however, introduce actual wheels.
A trio of custom-built carts wend around the dining room; Lockwood says the idea struck the first time he and his wife Rebecca visited the space, with its wood and brick and concrete angles, and realized how vast it is. Each conveyance rolls up to diners with a tray full of stuzzichini, Southern Italy’s tradition of bite-size snacks that come with your aperitivi. (The word comes from the Italian stuzzichare, to pick.) Altura does its own version of stuzzichini across the street, a half dozen introductory bites, composed as carefully as any musical arrangement. But here, Lockwood added shades of dim sum service with a dash of Brazilian steak house chains like Fogo de Chão thrown in for kicks: That wood-mounted note card—“a puck,” as Lockwood calls it—should be turned over when you want the carts to stand down and let you tackle the rest of the menu, or an uninterrupted conversation with your dining companion.
The dozen-odd snacks reclaim Lockwood’s original rusticity: Perfectly cooked octopus with a low rumble of heat sits on a bed of chickpeas, and a rabbit meatball the size of a plum floats in a puddle of brodo with a relish of fennel and olives. Roasted beet wedges stand upright, like pointy petals around a pool of tonnato—this concept is, at is essence, an edible beauty pageant. Then again, the reality of the chilled clams or hamachi crudo in an emerald pool of chili water doesn’t live up to their considerable cart appeal. Fried artichoke hearts arrive oily from their tour around the dining room.
Carts come early and come often, and the snacks they proffer are way bigger than a bite. A plate of cotto salami and the cone filled with gnocco fritto—fried triangles of savory dough dusted in sea salt and fennel pollen—could pass for an entire dinner. If Carrello were simply a stuzzichini bar, full stop, it would be an admirable adventure. Lockwood’s fleet offers novelty, swift service to sate the hangry, and a chance to gaze upon that meatball before you decide whether it’s something you actually want to eat (you do). But when the chef reopened his file of original Altura ideas, he went way bigger.
Two hours into another meal at Carrello, I eyed the savory hunk of braised lamb neck set before me with the diminished enthusiasm of a woman who has already eaten two dinners’ worth of small plates. It seemed like a great idea when I ordered it an hour earlier. In that moment of abject fullness, I thought about the Stanford marshmallow test, when, in the 1960s and ’70s, psychologists at the university tested kids to see whether they would opt for the instant reward of a single treat, or exert some patience, knowing they could have two treats if they waited longer. The kids capable of delaying their gratification went on to superior SAT scores as teens; at Carrello, they would probably resist cart overload and save room for the menu’s many subsequent acts.
Lockwood considers the stuzzichini a “supplementary sideshow” for a menu of pastas, contorni, and a section of proteins, all cooked bone-in and most presented family style. Servers recite the poundage and the cooking times for each dish as if it were some sort of carnivorous actuarial table: The whole chicken and the 32-ounce New York bone-in require 45 minutes; a one-pound branzino can be yours in a mere 20. Pairing these long lead-time dishes with a steady stream of instant gratification on a cart seems problematic (and expensive), unless you arrive with a huge party—or plan to sit around for hours and get very drunk.
The pastas do bring me back to that first year at Altura. Carrello’s kitchen works with three different doughs—four if you count the gnocchi. Folds of pappardelle or blocky strands of spaghetti alla chitarra bear the finesse Lockwood acquired making pasta at Michelin-starred Acquarello in San Francisco. Noodles like these look silly in Altura’s tasting menu, he allows. “They need to be in a big bowl, right?” Dishes that involve ragu or sugo are sure bets, but other preparations don’t do justice to Lockwood’s pasta. The spaghetti is already a Carrello fixture; it slaps in ragu and parmesan and crispy leaves of sage, but recently settled into a carbonara-esque preparation that doesn’t transcend the sum of such simple parts. A friend described the hand-pinched scarpinocc filled with pumpkin and amaretti as “that pumpkin spice latte pasta.” She wasn’t wrong.
The menu’s contorni section delivers some of Carrello’s best moments, like a pan-roasted mix of cauliflower, rapini, and romanesco, both tender and textural, sparkling with lemon, garlic, caper, and anchovy. Or the roasted carrots on a small hill of toasted farro, prone to surprising you with bursts of spice. One night my party limited ourselves to those carrots and a single pasta, and still a smattering of stuzzichini did us in by the time the lamb neck arrived after the promised 50 minutes. I couldn’t appreciate the seven-hour slow roast that left it glistening and rich, or the distinct tastes of both honey and pepper that emanate from its bed of fried eggplant.
You certainly don’t have to avail yourself of the carts, but asking a diner to flex her own powers of marshmallow resistance sure puts a weird spin on hospitality. Plus, you’d miss out on the best moment of any night at Carrello.
The dessert cart has its own parking spot in the kitchen, prime real estate closest to its dedicated freezer and refrigerator. Whenever it trundles back into the kitchen, the staff descends like a pit crew to tend to its needs, which mostly involve keeping six different sweets at various optimal temperatures. A tidy stack of housemade cannoli occupy a glass cloche, and little jars hold a bang-up bourbon-caramel and chocolate semifreddo. Chocolate-hazelnut cookies, panna cotta, and a bourbon-pecan crostata—none of these desserts, as far as I know, contain actual marshmallows. But each presents its own argument for delayed gratification.