Filiberto’s: Still Crustworthy After All These Years

The Weekly’s first restaurant rave finds new life.

How long can you remain a fan? I suppose I'm still a fan of Simon and Garfunkel and Cookie Monster 30-odd years after my parents introduced me to them. Elvis fan clubs are still going strong. Hell, James Dean fan clubs are still flourishing. In the same vein, 33 years ago, Seattle Weekly's very first restaurant review raved about Filiberto's Italian Restaurant. Dozens of restaurant critics later, we're both still here, and still fans.That March 1976 review was written by Gordon Bowker, co-founder of Starbucks and Redhook Brewery and an early investor in Seattle Weekly. He used the florid pseudonym Lars Henry Ringseth. Bowker says he had discovered Filiberto's about a year before that inaugural issue."I had heard that there was an Italian restaurant in Burien," he now recounts. "Italian restaurants were harder to come by in those days, and so I was cruising around [looking for it]. Sure enough, down Des Moines Memorial Drive I saw this place called Filiberto's. I walked in, and the dining room was empty except for an old Italian guy sitting alone in a corner with a glass of red wine. He saw me, stood up, and said, 'Salute!' I figured I'd arrived somewhere."Even though he gave the place only two stars out of four, Bowker seemed thrilled at the degree of authenticity he tasted there. "I hesitate to publish an endorsement of the restaurant," he wrote, "fearing that the delicate ecology of its kitchen will be forced into pollution alert by the sudden appearance of hordes of demanding and insistent refugees from Gasperetti's and Rosellini's, all of whom have been to Italy once and know what a carbonara is." They apparently did as Bowker feared; his—or rather Lars Henry Ringseth's—review helped make the restaurant, as well as the Weekly's reputation for food coverage. (We've posted a pdf of the article on our food blog, seattleweekly.com/voracious.)After his review and subsequent outing, Bowker became a regular customer and a friend of the restaurant's owners, the Genzale clan: Filiberto and Rosetta Genzale; Filiberto's brother, Alfonso; his sister, Mina Perry; and her husband, Ron. His review noted that some members of the clan cooked better than others, which may have sown seeds of family discord."The regulars there made a lot of subtle distinctions," Bowker remembers. "Fil made a really dynamite chicken cacciatore, but Mina had the touch with the pasta, and Alfonso used to make pasta fazul. I think there was a little sibling rivalry."The restaurant thrived through the 1970s and '80s, adding what may have been the state's first wood-fired pizza oven. Schisms within the family, however, eventually led to the Perrys buying out Filiberto and Rosetta, who emigrated to a small town in Italy's Campania region and opened a restaurant named The Seattle Grill.Mina and Ron ran Filiberto's together afterward until Ron died eight years ago. By the time I visited Filiberto's in 2006, the restaurant was showing its age—a sprawling, low-ceilinged affair with cinder-block walls and the traditional red, green, and white everywhere. The menu, once daringly authentic, had calcified into what is now so familiar as to be clichéd: linguine alle vongole, tortellini al ragu, scampi diavolo. But while the rosemary-rubbed pollo alla cacciatore that Bowker rapturously described in 1976 wasn't there, the pastas were still good and the pizza excellent. In fact, I thought it was one of the best pies in town.I never become a regular, however. In October 2007, the Port of Seattle bought Perry's building because it was in the flight path of Sea-Tac's new third runway. She was able to rent from them until May 2008, but finally closed down—for a year and a half.Why not just retire? I asked Mina. "I could not be away from the restaurant," she replied, her Italian accent still thick. "I find that the only real enjoyment I get is in the restaurant. I missed my customers so bad I could not stand to stay home."Six weeks ago, Mina opened the new Filiberto's on Southwest 152nd Street in downtown Burien. While the decor of the old place seemed to embody the clichés of every postwar Italian restaurant, the new room comes out one part warehouse, one part village square, and two parts Tuscan sunset. It's smaller and loftier than the old Filiberto's, and its saffron walls are crisscrossed with jagged Frankenstein scars. (Why do giant cracks in the wall always say Italy?) The cafe tables are covered in red and gold linens, not red checkered cloth, and curly-tiled faux roofs jut from a few of the walls, wistfully suggesting that the lights overhead are giant stars.The smartest aspect of the new decor is that the Perrys rebuilt the pizza oven as a demo station. Mina Perry's often there, all five feet of her, stretching dough, prodding her assistant to pull baked pies out of the flames with a long-handled peel, and running back to look dourly over—well, around—the shoulders of her young line cooks. And if you want to order a bottle of wine instead of something from the short list of glass pours, her son Pat is the guy you summon to look over the wine shelves. He'll not only sell you a better bottle than you'd intended to drink, he might even cut you a deal.The rest of the service remains friendly, personal, and slow. One waiter forgot to submit our entrées, and for an hour we watched the tables around us come and go before she sorted it out and bought us a couple of glasses of wine to apologize. On a slower night, Mina came out between our courses to spend a few minutes with a table of regulars. But thanks to the great bottle of wine Pat had given us at a steep discount, we didn't begrudge her the extra time.Filiberto's new kitchen seems to have the same strengths and weaknesses as old Filiberto's. The appetizers are unremarkable: iceberg-lettuce salads doused in vinaigrette, pale fried calamari that needs more crisping time in the fryer and a heavier dose of salt. While the veal piccata was priced a bit steep, I was easily able to cut the meat with a butter knife; and the sauce—white wine, lemon juice, capers, and parsley thrown into the pan just as the medallions browned—came out correct.And although Mina has switched from a wood-fired pizza oven to gas in the new place, it hasn't affected the quality of her pizza. A half-dozen artisanal pizzerias have opened in Seattle since I first visited Filiberto's three years ago, and still only Delancey's and Serious Pie's crusts can best Mina's. Her crust inflates around the central pool of tomato sauce and cheese to form a papery, charred puff, which crackles when you bite into it and reveals a plush, delicate crumb. Mina's straightforward sauce of crushed tomatoes never steals attention from the dough, and all the cooks need to do is halve the amount of cheese to get a pizza any "artisan" pizzaiolo would do well to emulate. It's amazing to think that long before Via Tribunali, Tutta Bella, and Pizzeria Pulcinella flooded the city with vera pizza napoletana, one real Neapolitan in Burien had already upstaged their ambitions.The sauces on the pastas also ranged from good to extraordinary. Even the side bowl of overcooked penne that came with my veal was topped with a small spoonful of a simple, perfect meat-tomato ragu—just enough to coat the pasta tubes underneath in washes of flavor. And the puttanesca sauce on an entrée of linguine hit the right balance of tomato, olives, capers, and garlic—potent yet not overpowering. (These al dente noodles curled and slithered over one other with just enough body in them to ensure that I had to bite firmly into them.)Finally, Mina's marinara sauce, which we ate on another plate of mushy penne, may be the best I have ever eaten. Perhaps I'd just given up on marinara, the epitome of quick and cheap Italian food, after my Prego years in college. Simmered down on her stove, the tomatoes' brash acidity softened and deepened, the onions and garlic melted into the olive oil, and the sauce took on a gravitas I'd never have expected. As the 30-year fan Bowker summed up for me: "Mina's a good cook, a contadina paisana. She knows how to do it."jkauffman@seattleweekly.comPrice Check

  Appetizer calamari $13

  Penne with marinara $12

  Pizza margherita $11

  Linguine puttanesca $16.95

  Veal piccata $26.95

 

 
comments powered by Disqus