From Sicily, con Amore

Belltown's best Italian restaurant is Belltown's best-kept secret.

You can pass by La Fontana Siciliana a hundred or so times, noting its distinguished, secluded presence on every occasion, without being possessed to actually enter. Maybe it’s too secluded, maybe it seems too detached. I don’t know. I just know that despite being familiar with the name, the well-traveled block, and the appealing courtyard location, almost no one I know has ever been there, and I know that I’ve had plenty of time and space to ponder the incongruity of this as I’ve enjoyed meal after meal of fantastic Sicilian fare.

While the exquisite commingling of flavors and influences (Arab and Mediterranean sweets and salties used in tandem with rich imported cheeses, other traditional Italian ingredients, and some local seasonal fruits and vegetables) is the first and foremost pleasure at La Fontana, texture—and the kitchen’s careful attention to it—is right behind.

Red snapper in dentice alla Siciliana ($18.95), prepared with kalamata olives, capers, and fresh basil, was flaky and fall-apart perfect, not at all mushy the way snapper can sometimes be. A prosciutto-wrapped pear (a popular and frequent salad special at $12.95), hollowed out and stuffed with hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano and dressed with aged, fruity balsamic vinaigrette, was so perfectly formed, so perfectly ripe, that it had to have been hand-selected. You could easily imagine one of the kitchen crew working their way through a stack of pears, picking each one up, turning it over in the palm of a hand, tossing it in the air to test for weight, and keeping it only if it passed muster.

Eggplant, escarole, and pasta, too, are all perfect. Firm and substantial, La Fontana’s spaghetti and linguine could ace a Belltown al dente contest if ever one were held. Sure, any experienced cook knows exactly how to time the rolling boil of water and how to measure the dash of salt thrown in at just the right moment. And picking out produce is not rocket science. Still, so often these little things are flubbed and add up to big disappointments. But at La Fontana, the little things seem dwelt upon. Likely owing to the fact that their business model (no advertising, deliberately low profile) allows them a wonderfully uncrowded dining room, the kitchen has time to prepare plates that practically shimmer with the detailed attention given them.

However, I haven’t been absolutely floored by every dish I’ve encountered. On one evening, scallops with linguine in a tomato basil sauce with imported bell peppers ($22.95) was merely adequate, but that was as “bad” as it got. On the other hand, the fantastically cold and bright leaves of a well-dressed spinach salad ($8.95) burst with flavor and freshness, and tortellini Gorgonzola ($16.95), which I was properly counseled to go ahead and indulge in only after I selected a relatively austere salad to precede it, was worth every single calorie-rich bite. The fruity sweetness and tang of the very Sicilian pasta con le sarde ($18)—sardines sautéed with fennel, pine nuts, and raisins and served on spaghetti with tomato sauce—was so unusual and interesting that it practically qualified as entertainment.

One night my friend couldn’t resist ordering the chicken special ($20.95), even though neither one of us caught much more than the words “rosemary,” “reduction,” and “stuffed with imported cheese” as Marco Orostica, La Fontana’s theatrical and somewhat mysterious general manager, described the dish to us. The chicken was fabulous, tender and juicy, and the creamy richness of the cheese and the slightly savory, light sweetness of the sauce were in tight harmony.

When Orostica returned to check on us, we asked him to repeat his description, partly because he’s just fun to listen to and partly to zero in on what it was that made the dish so spectacular. He first replied with a quick, protective, “Please, no recipes! I’m sorry, but no recipes!” Only after we assured him that we weren’t going to attempt to replicate it did he indulge us. (It was the marsala wine that did it.)

SERIOUS EATERS have plenty of opportunity to enjoy serious food at La Fontana—and sticklers for precise service will more than appreciate the excellent staff. It is not a place to go if you just want one glass of wine, though; the almost exclusively Italian wine list definitely caters to those with the thirst and bank account for a full bottle. But if you love discovering underappreciated gems, you’ll leave La Fontana—after indulging in gorgeous house-made marzipan ($7; another echt-Sicilian delight), homemade tiramisu ($7), or imported spumoni ($7)—feeling like you hit the jackpot.

La Fontana Siciliana, 120 Blanchard St., 206-441-1045, 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5–10 p.m. Tues.–Fri.; 5–10 p.m. Sat.–Mon.