Locavorism Has Its Limits at Bizzarro

The “300-mile” menu’s tasty, but about as disciplined as “vegetarians” who eat chicken, oh, and the occasional hamburger.

When my friends and I looked over Bizzarro Italian Cafe's menu last week, we spotted Mama Lil's peppers and cherry tomatoes, but also bananas Foster and glasses of Valpolicella. "I thought you guys were serving a 300-mile menu?" my tablemate asked when the waitress came to take our order. Touted in press releases and advertisements--"Organic meats, vegetables, and dairy . . . all from local farmers within 300 miles!" its Web site claims--the new menu was, after all, the sole reason I was reviewing the 20-year-old restaurant. Yet between my two visits, all locavore claims had disappeared from the list of dishes we were holding in our hands. The waitress clasped her hands and tilted her head coyly, a silent-movie gesture of false contrition. "Well, we're mostly doing a 300-mile menu," she replied. "It's hard to source all the ingredients. All the meat, chicken, and seafood comes from local producers, and as much of our produce as we can find. But the desserts, of course, are imported, since chocolate and bananas don't grow in Washington." The restaurant's clientele didn't seem to be bothered with this retrenchment: On a Friday night, we snagged a corner table just in time to avoid becoming part of the customer blob glommed to the front door. The conversational din from the eight-top birthday party seated next to the six-top frienddate was enough to cover up the awkward second-date conversations surrounding us—mortification comedy's not my cup of tea. And though it looked like the tandem bike and the other ceiling clutter could use a good dusting, Bizzarro's blood-red brick walls and Addams-Family-garage-sale decor (how bizzarro!) still fostered the same casual neighborhood vibe as effectively as it ever has. "If they added a bar, I'd come back here just for a drink and dessert," one of my friends said. Mike Easton and Jack Kelly bought Bizzarro in 2005 from David Nast, who wanted to retire after running the business for 18 years. Easton, who's supplemented his behind-the-line experience with internships in Tuscany, decided early this year to try his hand at locavorism. "It forces your hand to have more of a seasonal menu, which is what Italian food is all about," Easton says. To me, the move is the smartest way an aging restaurant could, as the celebrity gossip mags say, "freshen up" its image, given how much our dining scene currently thrives on earnestness. Who can count all the neighborhood Italian bistros around town? They're as local in their appeal as Thai takeouts and farmers markets. If you want to attract citywide recognition, though, trumpeting your local loyalties is de rigueur. Attracting the next generation of $40-a-plate diners means keeping up with its tastes. What Easton didn't build into his new eat-local plan, with its three-month seasonal menus, was the coldest, most miserable spring in decades. When I first visited Bizzarro in early May, its "January-March MMVIII" menu was still in effect. The apples, winter squash, and kale repeated in numerous dish descriptions weren't at the peak of their season—and neither were the snap peas, asparagus, and rhubarb that should have been. That said, we started with a salad of cooked beets, shaved fennel, and smoked blue cheese that was as smartly composed as any I've tasted at Tavolàta. It was tossed with oil and crunchy fleur de sel whose saline shock took the place of any vinegar. A sharply dressed salad with hazelnuts, apples, and locally produced young gruyère wouldn't have been out of place at Sitka & Spruce in January. Bizzarro's linguini al vongole—made in-house, like all the pastas—didn't need a particular season to be good. The sweetness of the meat that I plucked from the open-mouthed clams blooming all over their noodle bed was tempered with flecks of house-made pancetta. While the pasta started off just a shade too al dente, retaining the kinks where the noodles had been folded, after a minute or two they soaked up enough of the garlicky clam broth in the bottom of the bowl to soften up just so. My tablemate insisted on ordering the potato gnocchi with sauteed apples, smoked blue cheese, and parmesan, which read "gut bomb" to me. It was rich but not deadly, and Easton had tossed light, just-snipped triangles the size of lima beans in a creamy sauce with just enough cheese melted into it to perfume the dumplings, not gum them up. What do you do when you have a tasty meal at a restaurant that seems to renege on its promises? You wait six weeks to return and hope the chef finally synched up with the season. He did. Easton's current "mostly 300-mile" menu may no longer be labeled with any months or big claims. Nevertheless, it's full of the tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers that we hope will soon be dominating farm boxes and market stalls. For instance, he paired burrata, a daily special that launched our second meal—it was a ball of mozzarella essentially stuffed with cream and ricotta—with sweet, golf-ball-sized cherry tomatoes sauteed in olive oil long enough for them to start softening up. We mowed through an entire square of spongy, salt-sprinkled focaccia (one of Bizzarro's house specialties) sopping up the pink juices. Once our server finished playing apologist, she revealed herself to be in tune with the Bizzarro vibe, the kind of waitress who remembers your kids' names every time you visit as well as when it's time to check in on your table. Another of the touches that makes Bizzarro feel comfortably neighborhoody is that the chef throws in a house salad with every main course you order. You can upgrade the plate of small mixed greens to a soup (for an extra $2) or specialty salad (for $4)—say, one with shredded carrots and shaved fennel—and still feel like you've earned enough of a freebie to spend more on wine. Again, the entrees we ate seemed like updated versions of checkered-tablecloth Italian comfort food. Perfectly silky ribbons of pappardelle were dressed with a bolognese sauce with ground lamb added to the ground pork and beef. Linguini al Norma was dressed in a hot-pepper-spiked red sauce and tangled around eggplant, though the noodles stayed undercooked and firm. In the pollo dei diaboli, a chicken breast with a crisp, evenly brown skin and juicy white meat was presented on shaved fennel and covered with a sort of relish of dried apricots and Mama Lil's peppers (hey, locally pickled vegetables are always in season). The dishes didn't come together quite as satisfyingly as the flavors in my first meal, but they were seasonally appropriate. And frankly, I didn't see why the chocolate or the bananas were worth importing, since the desserts weren't particularly good. The chocolate Vesuvius was a grainy chocolate bundt cake capped with coffee ice cream. In the migration west from New Orleans, bananas Foster, classically flambéed tableside, devolved into a couple of scoops of middling vanilla ice cream served with a ramekin of butter melted together with brown sugar, a few banana slices lurking at the bottom. The desserts had a homespun clunkiness to them that made them taste like longtime customer favorites introduced a couple of decades back when we were all a little less picky— uncharacteristic of the up-to-date Italian restaurant Easton is trying to make Bizzarro into. I'm glad to see an eat-local ethic spreading beyond the restaurants with the highest trend consciousness, like Lark or Union. And I also think Bizzarro is incorporating local foods without sacrificing the approachability that matches the restaurant's fun, casual vibe and makes the place so popular with customers. But the current version of the 300-mile shopping list Bizzarro is selling to its round-the-block clientele reminds me of self-proclaimed vegetarians who still eat chicken, oh, and the occasional hamburger. The way Bizzarro can avoid truth-in-advertising complaints isn't to back down from its claims but to rejigger its menu often enough to show off the food coming from local farms and markets the day it's cooked. I'll happily put my money where my mouth is as long as I know the chef is doing the same. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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