Il Terrazzo Carmine Still Heads the Class

The first really nice restaurant I ever went to, I was maybe 14. It was on a family vacation to New York City to see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center. There were starched tablecloths and gleaming silver, a dizzying array of front-of-house personnel gliding across the hushed floor in tuxedoes or white jackets and polished shoes, and a man whose only job was to keep the water glasses topped. Once we discovered that, my little brother and I tormented him endlessly—drinking probably two gallons of water apiece over the course of a three-hour dinner.

Under the soft lights, my blue-collar parents looked like royalty—Mom in a dress, Dad in a collared shirt, jacket, and tie. They were treated as such by the staff: like they were somebody, like this night was important. They told me I could order anything I liked, and the power was intoxicating.

That freedom didn’t exist on normal nights out—for hamburgers and fries, meatloaf at some half-scary “family restaurant” full of water stains and fake wood paneling, the occasional steak, Chinese food on my birthday, or rolling into the drive-thru and shouting our order into a giant plastic clown head. I ate what I ate—occasionally what I wanted, sometimes not. But this was different. I ordered lobster. The butter pats that came with the bread for the table were molded like tiny clam shells. The plates were delivered under silver cloches that gave forth mushroom clouds of steam when lifted.

Being a teenager, I was a miserable bastard for the entire trip to the city. But for those three hours at table, in a restaurant whose name I can no longer recall, I was calm, relaxed, and inexplicably happy. My folks looked at me suspiciously throughout the entire meal, probably figuring I’d gotten into the minibar back at the hotel and wondering when things were going to fall apart.

Carmine Smeraldo opened Il Terrazzo Carmine around the time I was being schlepped to Manhattan by my parents, walked into my first fine dining room, set before a cloth-bound menu, and asked what I would like to eat. In the 26 years since, restaurants like Il Terrazzo have been driven toward extinction by economics and changing tastes. But really, American fine dining in its truest form has simply fallen out of favor. Some people would say that these things go in cycles—that a couple years of fast-casual and bistro boom will always be followed by a return to fine dining, then a retreat, then a return. But that’s wrong. That idea of retreat and return is based on too broad a definition of fine dining—counting virtually anything with a table, with silverware not made of plastic, with a wine list that doesn’t offer “house white” as a viable option. The local wine bar is a fine-dining destination by those terms, as are the neighborhood steakhouse and the hot new pan-Asian curry bar that turns into a techno club at 10 every Friday night.

Real fine dining is something different. There is a weight to it, a heaviness, that in the best cases feels grounding and solid—and in the worst will be translated to the food and the floor and come off as stodginess, or a sad clinging to a bygone heyday when everyone wore top hats and paid in cash. Real fine dining has age. There is an investment—in money, certainly, for the fixtures of luxurious moments, but, more important, in focus and commitment—that sets fine dining apart from casual. Service is a career, a noble calling best expressed in a fine-dining environment. Food, so twisted and tortured in lesser rooms, is given its most loving treatment at addresses where it’s not merely stock, but an object of worship. In all elements is a seriousness that is not the denial of fun but a form of respect.

Walking into a fine-dining restaurant, you feel a slowing, a calm, as you are taken into the smooth workings of a house dedicated to your pleasure. When places like that vanish, they can’t ever come back. Quiet competence and respect for tradition are things that can’t just be grafted onto any new space. They must be learned, kept alive by institutional memories that outstretch trends and live down fads.

The front door of Il Terrazzo is hidden around a corner in a reclaimed alley, facing fountains that burble icily in the cold. Light spills out like warm butter; stepping inside is like dropping back in time, falling into some eternal evening which in its steadfastness denies all changes in weather, style, and age. It reminds me immediately of the restaurant in New York, of the bare dozen restaurants I’ve known since which have clung to the tatters of formality with admirable tenacity, refusing to give up the ghost of fine dining.

My wife Laura raises a hand and touches the necklace she’d found just as we were heading out the door. She smiles. Like me, she’s made a tour of all the lower hells of the restaurant world, and a few of the heights. She understands how rare that instant feeling of comfort and competence can be. With my hand on her back, I feel some knot of tension leach out of her. We’re here. That’s all that matters. The house will take care of the rest.

A manned antipasti station is laid with meats, fresh vegetables, and shellfish on ice. Behind the line, stoves like battered tanks are attended to by white-jacketed station chefs in flopping muffin hats; at the host’s stand, reservations are still taken and held in a book by a man in a dark jacket, a tie, and magic shoes that make no sound when he walks.

The room is warmly lit in shades of peach—an ancient trick for making both one’s food and one’s date appear more appetizing—and candles gutter on the tables. There are white cloths, sparkling glassware, polished wood, carpet that shows no sign of wear. Just as a movie reaches always for that willing suspension of disbelief that will persuade viewers that Harrison Ford could throw aside his walker and actually survive that exploding bus on screen, so too a fine-dining restaurant in the classic style labors for that same suspension, putting up a front of completely banal adeptness in hopes no one will doubt its expertise. It will not win you with art or clever silverware, but merely draw you in with the solidity of its gestalt. Too often these days, dining out can feel like everything but. Restaurants behave like art galleries, fashion shows, game preserves for crass yuppies and beautiful people, or showrooms for modern innovations on the art of serving flan. Il Terrazzo is none of those. It is a restaurant, nothing more, and extraordinary in its single-mindedness.

The waiters in their white jackets drift up and down, from the floor to the risers and back again, ferrying salads and appetizers, a dessert tray, and bottles of wine. The menu is pre-Batali Italian, without the complications of modernity, arranged by courses (and meant to be served that way), naked of all competing influence. There are osso buco and medallions of pork tenderloin, wrapped in prosciutto and pan-seared; suprema di pollo (chicken in supreme sauce, which would be a straight-up cruiser of a dish if not for the fact that it’s almost never served anymore); steak in green peppercorn sauce; calamari affogati; and prosciutto with melon—a perfect two-ingredient dish, but so grandfatherly that it’s become a joke, chef’s shorthand for something aged, dim, and far out of touch.

Still, it’s a joke I like when well told, so I order the prosciutto with melon, as well as the “special” caprese salad and ravioli of summer squash with a brown-butter sauce, because these plates provide nowhere to hide. A kitchen either does them perfectly or doesn’t, and there’s no way to make one look like the other.

While we wait, Laura and I make small talk and watch the room fill around us. Twenty-six years in, Il Terrazzo can still draw a crowd—many of them known by their first names, by the wines they like and the dinners they prefer. Specials are conjured out of air for them. Most are wearing jackets and ties, but not all. Most have 20 years on Laura and me, easy. The regulars here have aged along with the fashion for fine dining, seeing their options narrow as the years roll past. Il Terrazzo is not their only bastion left in Seattle, but it is among a very few. Most appear perfectly fine with this, or at least unaware.

The prosciutto is perfect, sliced thin as a whisper and served at room temperature. But the melon is not, coming on the rind, clumsily and unevenly cut. When you have just two ingredients to play with, both need to be treated like gold. The melon wasn’t.

The caprese, on the other hand, is five ingredients, ideally presented: imported buffalo mozzarella at the peak of its brief age, both soft and striated; basil leaves; good oil; black pepper from our server’s mill; and quartered red and yellow tomatoes, luscious and bleedingly ripe, sweet like fruit and tasting of sun on this rainy night.

Our waiter quietly brings the ravioli, setting it onto a table padded against the pedestrian clunk of courses being laid, and it is delicious—the squash whipped almost into a mousse and piped into good ravioli, the browned butter giving nothing but a nutty aftertaste and a fleeting sense of fattened excess, precisely as it should.

We order more: a risotto, touched with tomato, alive with red-pepper heat and chunks of spicy sausage; penne with house-smoked salmon in a sauce built in the pan from rough ingredients and finished with heavy cream; simple gnocchi in red sauce with basil and a bit of fresh mozzarella. All of it is classical to the point of rote, schoolboy recitation—dishes unchanged over generations, yet satisfying in a way that no artichoke foam, pasta-less lasagna, or deconstructed linguine alle vongole ever could be. Which I know because I’ve had all three of those dishes at different times in different places, attempted by chefs on the run from the strictures of tradition like gunmen fleeing the law.

Laura orders beef tenderloin in a Barolo wine reduction studded with pine nuts and bits of pancetta. I have the veal, the scaloppine di vitello al limone e capperi—which comes prepared like something out of a corner trattoria, no attempt having been made to jazz it up for the swells. It’s just cutlets of veal, milk-soaked, pounded, breaded, and flashed in the pan with a little lemon, a scattering of capers, and nothing more. The room has filled now, with couples celebrating birthdays and ten-tops running up thousand-dollar tabs. The floor is awash in white-jacketed servers and buzzing with muted conversation, laughter, and the delicate clink of forks against china. For the two hours or so it takes us to work our way through dinner, I am happy and relaxed— 14 again in my scratchy shirt and fancy pants, discovering anew the power of dining to warm and calm the heart, remembering what it means to dine in a place that is wholly and only a restaurant.

We stick around for dessert, ordering a small bowl of raspberry sorbet, impossibly sweet and red against its white bowl, and a tiramisu rich with espresso and dusted in cocoa powder like a snowfall of chocolate. Unwilling to go just yet, we linger over the sweets and the bill, knowing only that it’s cold outside but, for a few moments yet, warm and lovely just where we are.

Price GuideVeal scallopine  $28Filetto Con Pancetta  $36Suprema di pollo  $26Prosciutto and melon  $12Caprese  $9.75Penne with salmon  $18/$13Ravioli  $18/$13