The odds against a new restaurant enterprise surviving are high, but I’d be willing to make a bet on Volterra. The new Italian-themed eatery in Ballard seems to have everything going for it: location (on trendy Ballard Avenue near Market, in the renovated old house where Burk’s Cajun-Creole restaurant used to be); approach (Italian, but imaginatively, intriguingly so); staff (some of the smoothest wait staff I’ve encountered in Seattle, even though the place has been open only a few weeks); and above all, the food.
The food is Don Curtiss’ department, and his name alone should guarantee a visit from Seattle diners—those with long memories, at least. Among the kitchens Curtiss has worked at or helmed are al Boccalino, Andaluca, Assaggio, and Prego. He’s been out of the spotlight for nearly five years. Volterra should place him squarely back at center stage.
Volterra is named after a small hill town in Tuscany, well off the beaten tourist track. It’s the spot where Curtiss and his wife and partner, Michelle Quisenberry, got married last summer, which must explain the couple’s deep affection for a place other visitors remember as dusty, dull, and extremely unassuming. Fortunately, Curtiss’ love for and deep experience with Italian culinary traditions evoke Italy on the plate.
The menu is balanced like an Italian one, with about equal numbers of antipasti, pasta dishes, and entrées. Rather than the traditional secondi, Curtiss calls the latter piatti forti, “powerful plates,” which sounds a little threatening, but all he seems to mean by it is that each is served with its own sides (contorni) rather than calling upon the diner to choose à la carte.
The appetizers are substantial, ranging in price from $7 (Tuscan bean soup laced with fresh olive oil, steamed asparagus in a mild cheese sauce sprinkled with pistachio) up to $11 (grilled prawns dressed in fennel-olive relish on baby greens). You can opt for a plate of cured meats ($10, just right for two) or the chef’s choice of cold appetizers ($9 per person). Lighter appetites might prefer Curtiss’ version of bruschetta, smeared with mushroom-truffle marmalade and topped with artichoke ($7). You should probably wait a few months to sample the prosciutto and melon ($9). Don’t order the polenta with wild mushrooms ($9) unless you’re planning to share. The portion isn’t large, but the lush, gooey fontina filling make the dish not just sumptuous but very filling.
Several of Volterra’s pasta plates use house-made pasta: We looked longingly at the pappardelle in a duck ragù ($16) and the tagliolini with fresh mushrooms and truffle butter ($16) but concluded our appetites weren’t up to the challenge. We opted instead for spaghettini dressed in a thin, peppery tomato sauce tossed with basil and crab, $18 and worth every penny, as it’s a rare restaurant that can serve up a Dungeness crab dish that equals in flavor the plain unadorned animal itself.
By the time we reached the powerful-plate stage, we were wishing we had the option of skipping the contorni, or at least of ordering something lighter than the mashed or au gratin potatoes featured with most of the dishes. Loin of lamb ($19), served medium rare, stood up well to a strong, salty mustard-crème sauce. Veal scallopine with morels and marsala ($19) was rather disappointing, not because the meat was not perfectly sautéed, but because really good veal able to stand up to such simple treatment is rarely to be had in these parts. When next we return, we plan to try the gran misto di pesce al cartoccio ($22), a sort of dry bouillabaisse baked in parchment.
One of the most seductive aspects of the Volterra experience is what’s going on not on your plate but in your glass. The impressive wine list is longer than your arm. The price tags are pretty impressive, too, starting around $30 a bottle and topping out near $200, but there are respectable house pours ($5.75) and more than a dozen by-the-glass items running from $6 to $9. More tempting is the cocktail lineup, where I think I see the dash and flair of Kathy Casey’s drink-design magician Ryan Magarian. If you’ve got the guts to drink a dark-blue cocktail in public, go with the Volterra Sky ($6.50)—blue curaçao laced with vodka, sage, and citrus flavors. We confess to preferring the Grappa 75 ($9), a blend of Tanqueray Ten gin and grappa (brandy), lightened with sparkling wine and a dash of lemon sour and Grand Marnier.
Volterra’s brunch program deserves a notice all its own. Suffice to say that those bereft since the Ballard Avenue Julia’s closed three years ago can rejoice, and rejoice in comfort. For the time being at least, you can get into Volterra’s brunch without standing in the street at all, let alone for an hour.
Volterra, 5411 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-789-5100, BALLARD. 5–10 p.m. Mon.–Thurs.; 5–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.; 5–9 p.m. Sun. Brunch 9 a.m.– 2 p.m. Sat.–Sun. www.volterrarestaurant.com.