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If you eat enough plates of spaghetti and gravy, you'll soon have enough money saved for a serious Italian meal. And Seattle isn't short on restaurants specializing in just that: Here, our picks for the city's best purveyors of handmade pasta and robust meats.
As always, the finalists are arbitrarily ordered, but the winner gets to occupy the number one slot. Erin Thompson compiled our contributors' comments. And if you're still saving up for an expensive dinner at one of the restaurants listed below, don't forget to refer back to last week's list of Seattle's top cheap Italian joints.
Tom Douglas--who's done the pizza thing at Serious Pie and perfected pretzels for Brave Horse Tavern--rolls out his pasta shtick for Cuoco, an upscale Italian restaurant that trusts its patrons won't be scared off by duck gizzards or uneasy with an all-Italian wine list. Many of the pastas are stupendous: The delicate lasagna, layered with béchamel and a faintly tannic Bolognese, justly surged with pride at transcending its potluck reputation. And there's much to like about a lark of a calamari preparation, featuring spicy sausage looped through pliable rings of bronzed squid and plated with fat cannellini beans.
Whoever designed the moody, dramatic lighting at Barolo Ristorante deserves a Tony Award. Chefs Michele Godina and Riccardo Simeone claim the restaurant showcases the cuisine of its namesake, the Barolo region in northwest Italy. They eschew the tomato sauces and rustic Mediterranean notes of southern Italy in favor of mushrooms, beans, bitter greens, and lots of northern Italian red wines.
Branzino comes off like a handsome older man, charming without trying too hard. The upscale Italian restaurant is always crowded in the evenings, drawing as many loudmouthed businessmen as it does cozy couples on dinner dates. Its menu is divided into five sections: antipasti, fish, meat, pasta, and contorni. Under fish, of course, is the branzino, a European sea bass with a crisp silver skin and tender white meat. Other dishes--duck confit, risotto with braised oxtail--are rich in flavor but small in size. You may want to order a side of meatballs, too. But be sure to save room for cannoli.
Wallingford's rustic Cantinetta is a convivial neighborhood bistro known for its handmade pasta, delectable pastries, and fine wines. Warm and clean at the same time, Cantinetta is instantly likeable. After dining on chef Emran Chowdhury's gnocchini with basil pesto and sautéed cherry tomatoes or lamb sausage, studded with hazelnuts and chopped sage and sautéed with fresh nectarines, plums, apricots, and black olives, order the zuccotto, thin petals of sponge cake wrapped like a rosebud around a core of almond-infused whipped cream and chocolate pudding. It's Italian. It's American. It's awfully easy to finish.
6. Il Bistro
Il Bistro, the longtime resident of the surprisingly spacious grotto under the Pike Place stairs, positions itself as a romantic destination: The red sauce joint's staffers have seen their share of teary wedding proposal scenes at candlelit tables. The food sometimes threatens to interfere with the mood, since it's nearly impossible to feel amorous after downing mounds of rustic rigatoni bolognese, laden with veal, or a portion of lasagna so hefty that a burly server warned: "I can only finish it when I'm hungover." Still, the restaurant does right by classic dishes and makes good use of fresh fish and seafood from the market overhead.
Altura means "on high," which is roughly the height of the pedestal on which local food lovers have put this Italian-accented shrine to seasonality from chef Nathan Lockwood. Many of the small plates here support the accolades, including a terrific tuna heart pasta and perfectly-grilled steak. But the restaurant presents a classic sum-of-its parts situation, in which what's most memorable is the exquisite service, the cozy room and the conversations which inevitably unfold over a multi-coursed dinner that takes hours to complete.
4. La Rustica
Located a fair distance from the bustle of Alki Point, La Rustica isn't the sort of restaurant you're likely to just happen upon, unless you just happen to be taking a leisurely, aimless drive along the beach's sleepy residential side. But by all means do, if only for the opportunity to scarf down basket after basket of free, (usually) freshly baked focaccia before dinner at this intimate, family-run Italian restaurant. Don't overstuff yourself though--you'll want enough room to take down a plate of gnocchi (with roasted lamb or homemade sausage), wild boar in a sweet agro dolce sauce, or the savory cioppino in a rich saffron broth.
Spinasse's egg noodles are light, fluffy, delicate, and made perfect with a touch of butter and sage. The pasta alone is worth a trip to this pricey, recently expanded Italian eatery on Capitol Hill. But the rest of the menu lives up to the standard set by those glorious noodles. Savory flan, meats, and other delectable pastas round out the options, available in small plate or entree sizes. Ninety-five dollars will get you a tasting sample of the menu highlights, or you could just spend a C-note on only those egg noodles and drinks and go home happy.
Tavolàta doesn't need to be the new kid on the block to be sexy. What makes this Belltown restaurant all sorts of seductive is the fact that it's been around for years and is better than ever. Dishes like rigatoni, gnocchi alla romana, and the 16-ounce rib-eye steak will probably never leave the menu, but it's the newer contributions that you really need to dig your fork into: the grilled cuttlefish salad, the whole branzino, or a simple side of rapini with garlic, chili, and lemon. The George Clooney of Seattle restaurants, Tavolàta really has gotten better with age.
1. La Medusa
There was a time when eaters who couldn't afford industrially produced food were stuck with whatever they could grow or catch. Pricing's since flipped, and it's the fresh food that commands more money, as demonstrated by the modest splurges on La Medusa's market-driven Sicilian menu. Yet every dish is worth its fee, especially on Wednesday nights in summertime, when the menu functions as a "Here's what you missed" outline for folks who couldn't make the neighborhood farmers market. Vegetables are handled with tremendous care, meats are gorgeously grilled, and there's always Columbia City Bakery bread for sopping up the harmonized sauces.