You're downtown, it's lunch time, and you're starving. You certainly have options--sandwich shops, soup and salad joints, Vito's two-martini lunch--but nothing satisfies a powerful hunger like a pile of pasta, and for this particular craving, Cafe Bengodi delivers in spades.
What's more, the menu at this Pioneer Square fixture is nearly half vegetarian, though it doesn't appear to be designed that way, so veggie items are presented as authentically as those peppered with pancetta. Offerings are extensive--hearty Italian fare like pastas, risottos, polenta, and pizza are the name of the game here, but if you're a savvy vegetarian diner who likes to browse online menus before a visit, save yourself a headache and don't try researching Bengodi beforehand. This "Little Italy" hole-in-the-wall doesn't have much of an online presence--save this scrappy creation--but part of Bengodi's charm is stumbling in and scouring the menu in real time, just like they do in the old country.
On a recent weekday, my companion and I met up in Bengodi's well-worn dining room with pasta on the brain. We were warmly greeted, told to take any spot we liked, and settled into a weathered, though clean and cozy, booth. Starting in on the menu, the options are inundating: mushroom pizza with caramelized onions and gorgonzola, artichoke risotto, asparagus with smoked mozzarella piadina (flatbread sandwich). Deliberating the array was tough, but we eventually decided on pasta, upon a rumor they're all made in house.
The Pecorino--thin spaghetti tossed with mint, pine nuts, and pecorino--was simple and zesty, though a bit oily. The Funghi--penne with tomatoes, mushrooms, and thyme--was aromatic and tangy, with warm Italian flavors. Both pastas were al dente though the heavy use of seasoning, oils, and cheeses made it hard to determine whether or not they were house made. Portions are on the rich side but moderately sized, and easy to clear within the fleeting lunch hour.
Bengodi is open for dinner, but their great location and efficient service make lunch an ideal time for downtown vegetarians to get acquainted with their veg-friendly offerings--you might even be so charmed by the experience to come back for a romantic dinner. The food is heavy and uncomplicated, and you'll have to fight off a strong urge to take a nap at your desk, but when the pasta craving hits and you want skip The Old Spaghetti Factory, Bengodi hasn't forgotten vegetarians like a taste of the old country, too.