Amid Seattle's ongoing quest for political correctness, it's important to acknowledge that stereotypes exist for a reason. To wit: Al Boccalino owner Luigi DeNunzio looks and talks exactly how you'd expect a guy named Luigi to look and talk. With his handlebar mustache, thick Italian accent, and biking pants, you fully expect him to pedal bread, hand-formed meatballs, and fresh cloves of garlic to Marlon Brando's underworld hideout at a nondescript warehouse in SoDo during the downtime between lunch and dinner. Or you expect his cartoon brother Mario to bonk him on the head with a mallet while you're indulging in some vintage Nintendo.
Al Boccalino 1 Yesler Way, 622-7688, seattleslittleitaly.com/al-boccalino-restaurant.html. PIONEER SQUARE
Luigi is that much of a Luigi, a rare ladleful of marinara in a city whose Garlic Gulch yielded its primary turf (Rainier Valley) to African Americans several decades ago. There's a magnetism to the guy that made him the most recognizable face at Il Terrazzo Carmine in but two years as a server there, 1987 and '88. In '89, he opened Al Boccalino a few blocks away in a beautiful old brick building on Yesler beneath the viaduct. The bistro was met with much fanfare in a culinary landscape where Italian cuisine was still considered exotic and the locals didn't shit all over Pioneer Square (figuratively, anyway).
After opening Boccalino, Luigi built a mini-empire in Pioneer Square, which he dubbed Seattle's Little Italy. Where once his collection of restaurants included DeNunzio's (which succeeded La Buca and the eponymous Luigi's Grotto in its subterranean Cherry Street space), it's now down to Boccalino and Café Bengodi, a simple Italian cafe on the corner of First and Cherry. (DeNunzio's closed in February.)
By Luigi's admission, the Square's sunlight trade is a tough Chianti to cork these days. "It's hard to find yourself a niche for lunch in the Square," Luigi says. "There's white linen, and then there's grab-and-go."
Four months ago, Luigi decided effectively to split the difference, offering $6.95 specials like gnocchi, pancetta and asparagus risotto, and sausage with Tuscan beans—not a la carte, as you might expect at such a price, but with the full trappings of a proper entrée (bread and salad). With Sinatra on the stereo and linen on the table, it's a capo's feast for a thug's fee; you'll feel like you just stole something precious without resorting to violence.