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Affordable Italian food can come from a truck or a pop-up, and both entities are represented here. But, traditionally, cheap Italian means darkened rooms furnished with drippy candles, checkered tablecloths and Chianti bottles in straw flasks. It also means robust red sauce, buttery garlic bread and heaps of mozzarella baked golden. Finally, cheap Italian means delicious.
Here, our picks for the best local spots at which to get your meatball and manicotti fix. Since we're dealing with comfort cooking, there's nothing newfangled about the rules here: As always, the finalists are in no particular order; the winner gets the number one slot and Erin Thompson compiled our contributors' comments.
This Italian eatery, originally founded in 1953, has a rich history in organized crime and cocktail culture. Greg Lundgren of The Hideout restored the late beloved establishment in spring of 2010, promising to restore it to its old-school cool state. That he has. Customers will feel like they're on an episode of The Sopranos. Food includes classics like cannelloni, lasagna, and spaghetti with meatballs, plus pricier dishes like filet mignon and rack of lamb. And in the back room, which features a full bar, there's live entertainment via a grand piano, lounge singers, and literally, all that jazz.
9. Al Boccalino
Pioneer Square is known more for its appeal to suburban 20-somethings looking to get blind drunk than as a dynamic neighborhood where people actually live. But explore it comprehensively, and you'll see an area well equipped to mimic a historic European town center on a sunny afternoon. Luigi DeNunzio has long seen this potential, opening, closing, and reopening a slew of Italian restaurants over the past quarter-century in an area he's long proclaimed to be Seattle's Little Italy. Even if that boot has never quite fit the way DeNunzio has dreamed it would, his Al Boccalino is a gorgeous, friendly space in which to enjoy a surprisingly affordable two-hour lunch (accompanied by wine, naturally) a block from the sea, just like in Vernazza.
8. Urban Nomad
Urban Nomad's lime-green truck is an offshoot of a brick and mortar establishment on Elliott catering to F5 and Big Fish Games employees; its specialty is pasta, a surprisingly rare specialty in the Seattle food truck scene. The hand-formed turkey meatballs are juicy, plump and spiced optimally to complement the marinara sauce. Quinoa noodles--the truck's gluten-free option--are slightly earthier in texture than their gluten laden brethren, but other than that, a terrific mate to the turkey meatballs, basil and asiago cheese. For 9 bucks, this is a budget effective meal as it can easily be shared with a pal or consumed over two sittings.
7. That's Amore
There are some spectacular vantage points that no one should tell the tourists about. Olympic Sculpture Park: for everyone. Above the I-90 tunnel: just for us. Though its rear window looks across the Rainier Valley to downtown and the Sound, That's Amore defies every expectation of a "view" restaurant. The place is filled at lunch and dinner with Mount Baker residents, who come for the homey, inexpensive pastas, giant meatballs, juicy roasted pork loin, and the servers, who seem to know every diner's quirks and preferences.
Mamma Melina anchors the corner of a block-long building of modern condos and retail space near University Village. On sunny days, with the restaurant's large glass doors open onto the expansive patio, it looks more like L.A. than the U District. Inside, tables are topped with white linens and surrounded by sleek, modern molded-plastic chairs. A wood-fired oven glows from the kitchen, turning out Neapolitan-style pizzas with charred edges and slightly soggy centers. The pasta is made in-house, the steaks are from Painted Hills, and the portions are sizable. But as UW professors and grad students know, the bar offers one of the best--and tastiest--happy hours around: Select pizzas are $6, house wine is $14 a bottle, and the entire bar menu is slashed in half.
Fremont survives and prospers as long as Brad Inserra is behind the stove at the Swingside. Inserra loves sautés, braises, and fricassees, often robed in dense, spice-scented tomato sauces. He loves piling nuggets of fresh seafood atop swirls of pasta, secreting seasonal mushrooms and vegetables in one-dish meals, creating a kind of regional Calabrian gumbo from whatever's in good supply right now. And all this hearty cooking is served in nicely noisy intimacy in a cozy space that makes diners feel like friends of the family.
Machiavelli is a full-on New York-style neighborhood Italian joint transplanted to Capitol Hill, with the vinyl tablecloths, waitresses who make you save your fork for your next course, and the consistently great food to prove it. The Caesar salad and pastas are excellent, pasta specials with seafood are likewise, and meats come with sides of fantastic roasted potatoes and garlicky sautéed greens. Machiavelli is a perfect date place, and has even hosted a few marriage proposals over the years.
3. Il Corvo
While waiting in line to place an order for agnolotti, tagliatelle, or any of the other hand-crafted pastas on the daily-changing menu of noodle dishes at Il Corvo, flour virtuoso Mike Easton's cash-only weekday lunch spot, a glass of wine might seem an unnecessary midday indulgence. But Easton's extraordinary pastas and soulful sauces, wrought from whatever ingredients strike his current fancy, are too sensuous to pair with water. Easton's creations, incongruously sold from behind the counter at a gelato shop abutting a bug museum, are vivid reminders that authenticity is a matter not only of provisions and technique, but honest appreciation. Order a glass of chianti or pinot grigio, sit, and savor. Repeat tomorrow.
Owner Anthony Donatone doesn't believe in "feeding you with an eye-dropper," so visitors to this Ravenna red sauce joint should steel themselves for plenty of pasta. Donatone boils one noodle shape a day: Diners have their pick of about a dozen different sauces inspired by his most recent market visit. The restaurant, tucked into a very residential neighborhood, has a cozy, lived-in feel, accentuated by walls of family photographs and Frank Sinatra's omnipresence on the stereo. When the weather's warm, the best seats are on the patio.
While a fair number of UW students end up at Marcello Ristorante with visiting parents, the room is set for romance. In this economy, fairly priced spaghetti and cheap red wine could put anyone in a lovestruck mood, but the always-darling Marcello ups the ante with music, candlelight, deferential service, and outstanding versions of Italian-American classics, including a robust Bolognese and garlicky seafood pastas.