A Piacere

Il Terrazzo cultivates the comfort of body, palate, and soul.

On the west side of Pioneer Square, there's a restaurant so tucked in that few foodies under 40 even realize it exists. But Il Terrazzo Carmine not only exists, it has existed for 21 years, doing better business every year, right through the dot-com bubble until today. Il Terrazzo Carmine is the only survivor of an invasion from north of the border in the early 1980s. Umberto Menghi was (still is) the king of Vancouver Italian cuisine, and during his sadly brief reign in Seattle, he imported a good deal of talent from his adopted hometown. One of these was Carmine Smeraldo, who remained behind after Menghi returned to Vancouver, defeated by unrealistically high standards in supplies, employees, and customers. Smeraldo is not a less ambitious restaurateur, but he is a very realistic one. He never shared Menghi's restless impulse to surprise his customers, to drag them, if necessary, into experiencing Italian cucina nobile as he saw it. Smeraldo created a restaurant where serious diners with serious money could recapture the dining experience they'd lost through the dwindling of Victor Rosellini's legendary 410 and 610 restaurants downtown. Il Terrazzo's early menu was, for its time, pretty progressive; after 20 years it's largely unchanged, giving it a positively retro air: chicken breast stuffed with fontina and seasoned with sage ($24), veal scallopine with lemon and capers ($25), sweetbreads sautéed with proscuitto and baby peas ($26), beef tenderloin sauced with pancetta and Barolo ($36). This doesn't bother the core clientele one bit—if they're looking for culinary adventure, they know to look elsewhere. They come to Il Terrazzo for the kind of "ordinary" fine-dining experience that is still taken for granted all across Europe but is increasingly hard to find even there: serious food to be enjoyed beside serious wine at leisure by serious people. (The wine list is full of pricey Italian delights but also has offerings suitable for more modest pocketbooks.) Il Terrazzo's ambience is a seamless part of the experience. The terrace that gives the restaurant its name is splendid but feels rather cold, even in alfresco dining weather. But the wall of windows facing west onto the terrace fills the dining room and bar with light even on the grayest days. The linens, tableware, and appointments are simple but sumptuous. Although the space looks very much as it did 20-odd years ago, in fact it's constantly changing, as worn fittings are replaced with new and amenities are discreetly added (the beaten-metal hood above the kitchen being a recent example). The service is unequaled in the city. Smeraldo has surrounded himself with people, many of them Italian, who understand the art of service and feel nothing demeaning in waiting upon the pleasures of others. Most of them are a generation older that the wait staff in other restaurants; many have been with the company for years. So smooth and unobtrusive is their attendance that it's easy to take for granted—until you encounter the crude approximation of service you receive on your next night out. One reason that Il Terrazzo remains off younger diners' radar is that its "conventional" cuisine is also rather expensive at dinner, the time of day most yups and sub-yups devote to the pleasures of the table. That's a pity because, if anything, Il Terrazzo shines even brighter at lunch. It's not a place where you can grab a bite and run. It's a place to enjoy a full-dress kick-back luncheon. As lunch, it's not cheap; but you can make a substantial meal (if you skip the antipasto platter, $12 for two, and the gelato, $6.50) for about a third of what you'd pay in the evening. The daily soups (currently prawn and roasted pepper bisque, cream of cauliflower, and escarole, bean, and barley; $4.25 for a piccolo, $7.50–$8 for a grande) are luscious and filling. With bread on the side, they're nearly a meal in themselves. The pasta dishes ($11–$14.50) are substantial but lightly, fragrantly sauced, and eminently splittable. The baked veal and spinach cannelloni ($11.95) is to die for; if you have room for a secondo, I strongly recommend the eggplant parmigiana ($11) or a fragrant bowl of tomato-laced cioppino of fresh seafood ($11.95). I don't mean to dis the desserts at Il Terrazzo—they're lovely, and when your server brings a tray of them round for your inspection, it can be very difficult to purchase just one (they're $7.50 a pop). You might be able to keep your appetite better under control by spurning the dessert tray for an order of cheese and fruit ($9.50). Il Terrazzo is one of few restaurants where I almost always end the meal with coffee, confident that it won't be the sluffed-off letdown it often is elsewhere. To eat at Il Terrazzo is to feel the truth of the Italian proverb Mario Batali made famous: Against the hours of our lives, surely the Lord does not count the ones spent at table. rdowney@seattleweekly.com Il Terrazzo Carmine, 411 First Ave. S, 206-467-7797, PIONEER SQUARE. Lunch 11:30 a.m.– 2:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri.; dinner 5:30–10:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat. www.ilterrazzocarmine.com.

 
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