More than 230 languages are reportedly spoken in Columbia City, and Renata Bocauva, one of the greeters at La Medusa, speaks five of them. I'll wager she could welcome a diner in any language, however, being one of those brightly hospitable souls every restaurant should have stationed at the door. At La Medusa, the "Sicilian Soul Food" restaurant on Rainier Avenue, genuinely affable folk are likewise stationed all over the kitchen and dining room, dispensing candid advice on the menu and setting an effervescent mood. Impression no. 1: La Medusa is a charming place to be. "We opened up a restaurant so we'd have a great place to work," explains co-owner Lisa Becklund, who with partner Sherri Serino opened La Medusa six months ago. The pair met six years ago as chef and sous-chef at the Pink Door. Though Becklund decamped for the corporate kitchens of Cucina! Cucina! and Serino went on to preside over the stoves at Il Bistro, the two were already cooking up the restaurant of their dreams: a friendly neighborhood Italian joint starring authentic recipes from Serino's Sicilian grandmother, pizzas for Becklund ("I have this intense passion for pizza"), and soul. La Medusa 4857 Rainier S, 723-2192
MC, V; no checks "What soul food means to us is food that celebrates your culture and heritage, food that comes from your family, from your soul," Becklund explains. They found a cozy storefront in their lively multi-ethnic neighborhood, interviewed a hundred waitstaff candidates "to find the ones with the most passion," and fired up the ovens. So how's the food? With a few exceptions, as winning as the ambiance. Every meal begins with a gratis ramekin of caponata, a wonderfully full-bodied eggplant stew dominated here by the smoky essence of roasted red peppers and studded, in authentic Sicilian fashion, with pine nuts. But don't use the caponata as a substitute for one of the menu's starters, a couple of which are outstanding. Cod fritters ($7.50)—soaked, dried salt cod mashed with creamy potatoes and pan-fried crisp—is La Medusa's rendition of an Iberian classic known as bacalao. Becklund and Serino's is divine, drizzled with caper mayonnaise and a roasted red pepper vinaigrette. Grandma's Greens ($4.25) is another hit: a fragrant swamp of escarole and endive in a pungent garlic and anchovy broth. Rich, crumbly cornbread on top makes just the right counterpoint. Grazie, Grandma Serino. After such a bang-up beginning the entrée menu looks disappointing: Where is the variety? One encounters a heavy lineup of vegetarian pizzas and pastas, and meats consisting of a chicken liver dish, a few sausage items, and a pepperoni pizza. The seafood—in a Sicilian restaurant!--amounts only to a clam sauce, an anchovy broth, and, if you're lucky, a special or two. Impression no. 2: Don't come to La Medusa with a hankering for calamari. As long as you don't, you'll be favorably impressed. Pastas here are generally grand, particularly a buttery Northern Italian dish (thank Serino's other grandmother) made from thick egg noodles, caramelized onions, crispy chicken livers, and sprigs of fresh watercress ($10.95). The hearty whole thrums with deep Marsala undertones—delicious. The Arab-style penne ($10.50) is another success. In conceiving their restaurant Serino and Becklund carefully researched the history of Sicilian food, which turns out to be as multiculturally colorful as Sicily itself, owing greatly to the island's long Saracen occupation. This simple dish—pasta with ricotta and pecorino Romano and enlivened with mint—reflects the Arab style: no garlic, with an engaging sweet-savory interplay. Another member of our party ordered the evening's pasta special: bowtie pasta generously bedecked with mussels, prawns, and clams ($12.95). Sumptuously cooked seafood and a really piquant chile sauce made this a splendid dish—as all the specials at La Medusa have been. One night a week earlier the chefs had whipped up grilled polenta over a Marsala-infused mushroom ragoût topped with Italian sausage ($10.95), which turned out to be lick-the-plate tasty. On a different visit, the special was a fine hunk of salmon, topped with a perky corn relish and served alongside potato salad ($13.95). Very nice. Thankfully, the young entrepreneurs at La Medusa don't yet have to bear the weight of perfection. The starter green salad ($3.95), heavy on the lemon, was much too tart for my taste. The linguine vongole ($11.95), which I ordered with the recommended white sauce, was painfully overgarlicked; I trust the promised clams were in there somewhere, but I couldn't begin to discern their delicate flavor over the clamor of the bulb. Most problematic was the pizza. Built on delicious crackling-thin crusts, La Medusa's pizzas are authentically minimalist in the Sicilian style and therefore less than satisfying as meals. One pizza special, conservatively dotted with roasted red peppers, fresh oregano, and dollops of creamy goat cheese ($10.95), left vast open spaces across the pie with nothing of interest for the palate. Unwilling to leave it at that, we came back and ordered another—this time as an appetizer, with a salad. This was a much better way to go and a better pizza besides: dotted with thin-sliced red onions, red pepper flakes, and arugula leaves, this was at least coated with a thin sheen of good Gorgonzola ($9.95). The chefs offer up a handful of desserts every night, but one needn't look any farther than the cannoli ($4). One lick of the chocolate-dusted ricotta filling, and you'll be transported to a bustling Palermo street corner. Now that's a restaurant with soul.