La Fontana

The folks at La Fontana are either nuts or have no business sense. Sure, you can expect people to eat pasta with sardines in Sicily—it's practically their national dish. But Americans tend to shun the holy trinity of stink: sardines, mackerel, and anchovies. I have not seen linguine with sardines on a Seattle menu before—maybe there's some in Ballard. How long has owner Mario Fuenzalina been in this country? What prompted this brilliantly audacious menu option? On my first visit, I stayed away from the pasta con le sarde ($14.95) for social reasons; we were on a double date, had a long night of conversation ahead of us, and I had left my box of BreathAssure at home. We nibbled at a plate of marinated calamari ($7.95) that was drowning in pesto, then ordered couscous with lamb ($17.95), risotto with shrimp ($17.95), chicken Marsala ($14.95), and veal "Mediterraneo" ($15.95). The couscous and chicken Marsala were easy on the palate, if unremarkable; Mario told me later, somewhat regretfully, that the Marsala is his best seller. It's a sweet, good-natured dish—I mean that literally—even if the chicken is undersized for the price. The shrimp risotto and veal made me do a double-take—here was more evidence of a devil-may-care sensibility at work in the kitchen: the risotto's herby mix of oregano, marjoram, and basil is initially off-putting. The shrimp is almost too sweet. But the discordant flavors eventually mesh, and the dish grows easier to eat with each bite. It's a combination you will learn to like by the time you finish—if you can finish such a healthy serving. The petite scaloppine is saut饤 in a Marsala wine sauce with anchovies and tomato sauce: It's an edgy mix of syrupy sweet, briny saltiness, and tomato tartness. I found it intriguing and complex; my husband says he won't order it again—but he ate the whole thing anyway. No one had any room for dessert. First the bad news about the pasta with sardines: The sardines came out of a can. The good news: The dish still worked, both for me and for my friend Randy, whose mother is Sicilian and whose opinion on this subject therefore counts twice. To enjoy this dish you must like sardines. If you don't, it will be intolerable. Imagine slurping your way through a large bowl of linguine that's touched up with the slightest bit of tomato sauce. Just as the bracing, fishy-salty taste of sardine subsides you encounter the shocking (in that context) sweetness of raisins and the mild nuttiness of pine nuts. And then, as those tastes subside, you recognize the licorice-y aftereffects of fennel. These flavors all emphatically linger on the tongue. Mario tells me that the dish has been on the menu for a year. "I think no one else dares to serve it." It's definitely a guy dish—"not too many ladies want to try," he says. The sardines, which come from Sicily or Greece, are washed of excess salt, boned, and then kept in olive oil. Mario gets philosophical about it: "I tell my cooks, 'Stick with your dishes, and people will understand eventually.'" The restaurant has been around for three years, depending utterly upon word of mouth. The pasta with sardines ($14.95) has a cult following. As does, I'm sure, the linguine nere ($13.95), black squid ink pasta in a creamy sauce dotted with pieces of smoked lox and chopped shallots. Mario is especially proud of the lamb tenderloin ($18.95), because of its very Sicilian elements: figs, Marsala, goat cheese. A perfect prelude to any of these entr饳 is the escarola alla siciliana ($5.95), a warm salad of escarole saut饤 in olive oil with olives and garlic, topped with coarse-grain salt and pepper. Once again, we were too full to do justice to the dessert options—but we did manage to conquer and divide a chocolate cannoli that was possessed of two rare attributes: a perfectly crunchy shell and a fresh, made-to-order ricotta filling. I will go back this summer, to eat in the courtyard by the fountain. There's a secret, hidey-hole feel to the place: With its low ceilings, brick walls, black-and-white pictures of the old country, and bubbling fountain, La Fontana has a welcome mustiness that's pleasantly out of sync with the rest of shiny new Belltown.

 
comments powered by Disqus