SO I GOT A CALL a while back from a guy who said the best pizza this side of Brooklyn comes from a little hole

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Meat loaf surprise

Pizza may be the star, but the supporting cast steals this show.

SO I GOT A CALL a while back from a guy who said the best pizza this side of Brooklyn comes from a little hole up from the Olive Way freeway exit called Il Forno. A year and a half later I finally made it in, and he was right—it is a little hole. Il Forno Pizzeria

1356 E Olive Way, 343-7476

4pm-midnight every day

MC, V; no alcohol A triangular-shaped hole, to be exact; and as such, the latest in a long line of esteemed triangles in Seattle's restaurant history. You walk in at the narrow point and the room widens to include a few scattered tables, a selection of magazines, a counter across the long end. Not a room, it seems, that people would aim for. But certainly not a room to avoid. There's a kind of shopworn charm to Abdul Smoum's little Capitol Hill parlor, where one encounters unlikely candlelight and romantic wall murals. The bathroom, painted all in dripping dots, exudes its own brand of 'tude. And the scene behind the counter suggests that something authentic is going on. There's Smoum, the owner, a robust, apple-cheeked fellow speaking in an old-world accent. Now and again he opens il forno, the pizza oven, to slide in or pull out a golden pie. Taking orders and answering the phone is Jerrod, an eager lad in a newsboy's hat. Naturally, Jerrod (among others) delivers pizzas. So the players are from central casting: How's their product? We tried a sauceless pizza with pesto, tomato slices, artichoke hearts, and roasted cloves of garlic ($9.95, $11.95, $14.95), and it was very nice: fresh and bright and clean tasting on a thin blistered crust. Our other pizza, the big one with everything on it, was even nicer: sausage, ham, peppers, olives, tomatoes, cheese, and lots of onions with a sprightly red sauce ($11.95, $15.95, $19.95) . Both handily passed the breakfast test the next day; even refrigerator-cold, the flavors in these pies had married and mellowed. With them we'd ordered a Caesar salad ($2.95, $5.50), which was a good and garlicky version, and a gorgonzola salad ($2.95, $5.50), which was inexplicably horrible. Maybe the gorgonzola was chalky, maybe the dressing was imbalanced, maybe the lettuce was old. All I know was that it tasted odd, like breath, and we didn't make it more than a few bites in. Best that evening was the spinach tortellini ($7.95) we'd ordered for our daughter. Stuffed with smoked mozzarella, the tortellinis were sensational, particularly when swabbed around in what turned out to be a lovely marinara sauce. It was loaded with sweet garlic and pools of glorious oil, and enriched with sliced mushrooms and basil. Our poor toddler watched helplessly as her unfit parents, with promises of graham crackers and popsicles, polished off the better part of her dinner. "I LEARNED IT from my grandfather," Smoum told us proudly after we asked him about the magical sauce. "That and the crust." An immigrant from Jerusalem, Smoum comes from a family of cooks. His grandfather was a baker in Jerusalem's old city. One of his uncles owns B&O Espresso up the street; Smoum worked there upon his arrival in America. A cousin owns L'Auberge in Edmonds, where Smoum worked after B&O. In time, Smoum heard that an affordable little Capitol Hill space was available for rent; perhaps he could finally pursue his dream of opening his own place, and make his grandfather's recipes work for him. In December of 1997, Il Forno was born. Most of Smoum's business is pizza, which he offers in several varieties, including assemble-your-own. Indeed, most of the folks we saw tripping in to Il Forno had come for the pizza, which was, in our experience, very good indeed. It was not, in our experience, the best pizza this side of Brooklyn—we rather preferred the supporting acts. Like the penne alfredo ($7.95, $8.95 with sausage). The creamy sauce was silken and deep, and though some might brand it bland I landed instead on mildly flavored. We made the mistake of dressing this dish up with Italian sausage, which was of middling quality and not necessary. (One can order all pastas here with either the alfredo or the aforementioned marinara; yes, the alfredo's fine but don't be a fool—order the marinara.) Smoum makes one calzone, and it's for vegetarians, stuffed with peppers, mushrooms, onions, mozzarella, and ricotta ($6.95). Would that he included some herbs in that mix, for the stuffing wanted flavor. He does offer a side dish of marinara sauce for dipping; we wished that sauce had been baked right in. On the upside, however, gramps scored again: The crust was a doughy, flavorful triumph. I say design your own calzone from Smoum's long list of ingredients. Best was Smoum's meat loaf sandwich ($5.95), an anomalous item on an Italian menu, you'll think—until you see it. Think meatball sandwich and you'll have a more accurate visual. Between two slices of fresh, toasted baguette came bits of fluffy meat loaf in that great marinara. Fresh, inexplicably light, bursting with flavor—this humble lunch was our hands-down dinner winner. There are negatives: It took 25 minutes both nights to get our dinners (one was to go), and that—even being understanding about a small staff and pizza cooking times—is too long. There is no beer or wine (Smoum promises there will be soon). There is no dessert menu, although Smoum's uncle sometimes runs an extra tiramisu or two down the hill. Last but not least: It takes a dedicated hand on the lever to flush the toilet. (Whaddya want in a hole?)

 
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