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Ferrara Ristorante focuses on local foods, cooking some of them well.

The local-foods challenge—in which idealists or dieters, or both, eat only foods produced within 100 miles of their house for a meal or a month—is this decade's "diet for a small planet." Sustainable Ballard is planning its second annual "Eat Local" fund-raiser, after last year's raging success. Books chronicling years of chewing locally in such places as Arizona and British Columbia are being published. Tyler Palagi, chef of Ferrara Ristorante on Vashon Island, has fallen for the romance of the local diet, too. Palagi's no purist—thank God for that—but he's sourcing whatever he can from his 37-square-mile, farm-friendly turf: Eggs from Hannah Browne. Greens from Langley Fine Gardens. During the summer months, much, much more. Owner Matt Bergman, a lawyer and foodie who has lived on Vashon for 16 years, provided the money, consolidating what used to be a corridor of small shops and restaurants into a single bistro in downtown Vashon in November 2005. (Palagi is Ferrara's second chef.) As one friend said upon stepping into the place for the first time, "This is definitely the fanciest restaurant on Vashon." The look is classic: Black-and-white checkered tiles. Custard-colored rooms. Framed reproductions of Italian posters. We slid, and slid, into one of the party-of-eight booths, whose back was so high and plush, it made us feel like we had been assigned a private dining room. Though it's miles from downtown Seattle, Ferrara's "modern Italian" menu is in tune with more urbane trends (duh, Palagi last worked at Union), and distinctive enough to merit a close read-through. However, the romance of Ferrara's ideals don't always carry through to the dishes. I was reminded, once again, of how wrong French chef Henri Charvet was when he tasted Alice Waters' food for the first time and sniped, "That is not cooking, that is shopping." As a farmers market addict, I can say, cooking to showcase the perfect amazing meats and vegetables is not as easy as it sounds. The first time I ate at Ferrara, I tried several lovely dishes, clearly made with beautiful ingredients, but left feeling overall like sloppy technique had obscured the kitchen's good intentions. When I returned for a second meal, however, I ordered much better, had a terrific server instead of an undertrained one, and ended the meal with tiramisù and much warmer sentiments. At the first meal, several of our plates were still half-full when we stacked them on the edge of the table, awaiting our server's return. Sweetbreads are one of those things that would make my last- dinner-on-Earth list, but Ferrara's hadn't been properly blanched before being sautéed, and their livery character showed through. An overcooked fillet of sea bass was held aloft by broccoli raab stalks that had been blanched so long, the florets were melting off them. The appeal of a great panna cotta (a cooked-milk "custard" firmed up with gelatin instead of eggs) is its quivering sweetness, the way it melts over the tongue the moment you spoon it up. Palagi's version was on the Jell-O-y end of acceptable, but the clear Meyer lemon gelée layered on top tasted like an acidic Gummi Bear. The house-made pastas also proved disappointing on both visits. Flabby, overcooked potato gnocchi undermined the excellent things they were tossed with: velvety shreds of chicken, emerald wisps of spinach, sweet and stubby Thumbelina carrots, a sauce of roasted chicken stock simmered down to pure umami. I had a similar problem with the pappardelle: great sauce, bad pasta. The wide, flat noodles were stuck together in a starchy mush underneath a robust, well-balanced Bolognese. However, the pappardelle was the only mistake of my second meal. What Palagi does well, that meal confirmed, are salads and meat. His basic mixed-green salad was so fresh it could barely stay on the plate, a loose pile of irregularly shaped lettuces that clung to their individual curl and bite. The Dungeness crab salad was, paradoxically, both rich and light. It contained big morsels of pink-edged meat, all sweetness, which the chef, using a tart Meyer-lemon mayonnaise, bound together with earthy-mild celery root and biting radish coins. His duck confit was also everything it should have been (crackly skin, succulent meat), and his lamb sirloin with beets and whole-grain mustard sauce were so tender that we used a butter knife to cut them up. Though we quickly spooned our way through the Grand Marnier–scented tiramisù, my dessert recommendation would be to order the "chocolate of the day" I'd tried several weeks before, especially if it's the same fudge bomb of a flourless chocolate cake with peanut-butter gelato. Ninety-minute rush-hour commutes and $14 ferry rides make Vashon a hard place to "drop by" on a whim, and given Ferrara's unevenness, I don't know that I'd recommend a pilgrimage just to dine there. But should you find yourself and a date on the island some evening, peckish and love-struck? Don't think of returning to the mainland—eat locally. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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