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Seattle’s Top 10 Upscale Italian Restaurants
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.
Quiet Passion and Wild Mushrooms
by Rachel Kessler
I remember my First lover (using the word loosely–light on the “love,” heavy on the “er”) painstakingly dredging up how he’d spent $25 on dinner for the two of us. I still hadn’t slept with him at this point, and it was all so mysterious. Not really understanding his impatience with me, I didn’t want a candlelit dinner to have any other purpose but a candlelit dinner. Art for art’s sake. Food for eating. Candlelight for flickering across softened lips and cheekbones and eyes. I had this idea that a good dinner itself could be a type of sex act.
I think about all this as I meditate on the harmony of a nice big martini, opaque with frost in the small slivers of late-afternoon sunlight slanting through windows, and the presence of a handsome, silver-haired waiter. I am situated with one bare leg thrown over the other in the romantically dim IL Bistro. Despite being tucked under that section of Pike Place Market that Seattleites usually abandon to tourists (a bronze pig and flying fish abound), IL Bistro should not be overlooked. One of the few restaurants that feels a little bit, dare I say, continental–cosmopolitan, without a trace of stuffiness or pretension–IL Bistro is nestled on the curve of a cobbled alley; this place has a sense of permanence and tradition. In a city brimming with regional cuisine (that “fusion Northwest” obsession), a little deft Italian food based on good, simple ingredients is welcome relief.
Many years and lovers after my first companion’s waggling of restaurant checks, I met my current lover who, as I witnessed almost immediately, could get all lathered up over food. This, of course, drew me to him. That and his cooking. His marinara sauce affected me deeply. In return for a ride, he whipped up pasta primavera. The next night I made Panang curry. As I chopped vegetables, we sucked on cold beers and he asked me about my favorite things to eat with a look so searching, so stirring, his questions felt like a fetishist asking if he could fondle my high heels. We worked ourselves into a frenzied hunger with recounted meals while the aroma of curry fused with every particle of air in the moist kitchen, slathering its warm golden scent into our words, glances, our accidental brushings against each other. I don’t remember how the curry turned out, but I can still taste the air sparking between us.
From our table in a seductive corner at IL Bistro, Current Lover and I admire the rapini, among the other delights foraged on the Antipasto Misto ($11.50) we ordered to complement our cocktails. As the dinner progresses, we become aware of our perfectly timed waiter. Almost too handsome, but no one’s complaining, he otherwise poses no distractions or unwanted intrusions. Exuding a quiet elegance, he subtly guides our menu selections without a hint of anything but utter graciousness–he seems to glow. He inspires confidence without exerting an opinion: He possesses that crucial sixth sense of knowing exactly what to do and when to do it, a certain quality lacking in even the poshest wait staff. We notice another beautiful waiter, younger, with thick, dark hair and a chiseled face, bending over a table nearby, and think that we have entered some enchanted land of handsome waiters as Insalata Spinachi ($7.95) arrives, laced with pancetta, candied walnuts, and gorgonzola dressed with citrus vinaigrette.
Eight years have passed since Current Lover and I described port-poached pears and just-picked tomatoes to each other in that steamy, curried kitchen, and still IL Bistro’s wine and our first course of Taglierini con Aglio e Funghi ($13.95) enters our mouths like whispered desires–passionate kisses and an array of wild mushrooms. When we cut into the nightly special of roasted quail ($24.95), our senses are so saturated with pleasure, my body is so consumed with taste and smell and mouth and tongue, all other sensory input is disregarded for the moment. Outside, a single star in the night sky sears us with its brightness.
Below the hubbub of the Pike Place Market is tucked this “wonderfully sexy hideaway” that’s “been a favorite for years”, owing to the “fantastic, gorgeous bar” and the “picturesque” dining room with candlelit tables where you can sup on “delicious” Italian-Med fare, including “the best calamari and Caesar salad”; besides, what’s not to love about a place where the perfectly balanced “lighting makes everyone look beautiful?”
With roots in pre-boom Seattle, IL Bistro is still no relic.
by Neal Schindler
… “One mark of superb cooking is the use of rich flavors—not heavy textures or overlarge portions—to satisfy. After three sumptuous courses, my companion and I still had room for dessert, so we ordered strawberries with balsamico and mascarpone ($9). The vinegar, berries, and cheese were layered, parfait-style; the balsamic, we learned, had been aged for 25 years. No surprise there—its complex, slightly raisiny zing was an ideal accompaniment to both the sweetness and creaminess of the dessert. Add in the last tart sips of our 1999 Monsanto Chianti ($37/bottle), heady with cloves, and you have a painterly masterpiece, a meal that stands up to any Italian food (or chophouse fare) in town. And rest assured: This Seattle survivor still has plenty to teach us about fine food done right”. … (MORE…)
By TIMOTHY EGAN
Where to Eat
Underground and intimate, at the Pike Place Market, is IL Bistro, (93A Pike Street; 206-682-3049) a candle-lighted cavern serving Italian food coupled with the best of fresh local products. The atmosphere alone, with its hint of intrigue and hushed cover-sations, might be worth the visit, but IL Bistro delivers in almost every way. Its wine list is extensive, with pinot noirs from Oregon and caber-net sauvignon and merlots from the Columbia River Valley to complement Tuscan standbys. Pasta dishes are in the $12 range. Heavier Bistro favorites such as rackuf lamb or veal chops run $20 to $30 for entrees. Dinner for two with wine $65 to $100.
If Mafia caterer Artie Bucco on The Sopranos were to open a restaurant in Seattle, it would look a lot like this. Besides the handsome oak floors and cavelike dining space nestled secretively beneath Pike Place Market, IL Bistro boasts a compact menu that redraws the line between artful innovation and respectful traditionalism. The antipasto is a gem: Several generous curls of fine Parmigiano-Reggiano rest on layers of sliced salsiccia and salami, with impeccably roasted vegetables hiding below. Heady experiments in nouveau—like the Belgian endive/Dungeness crab salad with creamy mint dressing—merely lead the way to the Old World splendor of the caretto d’agnello, a painterly rack of lamb in sangiovese-rosemary sauce: sunrise pink on the inside, lightly charred without. Even turbulent Tony Soprano couldn’t raise an objection. The balsamic served over a light dessert of fresh strawberries and mascarpone is 25 years old, the Greyhounds at the bar are made with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, and the maître d’ really knows his Chianti.
Best Places Seattle rating: 3 Stars
For a quarter-century, IL Bistro has been a cherished refuge down a narrow cobblestone street in Pike Place Market. It’s an intimate grotto, like a room from the set of Casablanca: low-ceilinged, rounded arches, whitewashed walls. A step-down bar draws a lively crowd of regulars – and smokers – who dispatch clouds and conversation to engulf the nearest dining-room tables. Though chefs come and go, IL Bistro still serves Seattle’s best rack of lamb, six ribs of surpassing texture and flavor. The menu three-steps through the classic Italian dinner journey: appetizer, pasta, and main course. Sign up for the full trip, and the knowledgeable staff will offer a half-portion of the pasta – or gnocchi or polenta. The fare also follows Italian culinary tradition by celebrating straightforward flavors of first-rate ingredients. Escarole is sautéed in fruity olive oil and paired with olives and pecorino Romano. And simple roast chicken comes with an American touch: superb mashed potatoes. With some 500 choices, the wine list can be daunting. Here servers can be invaluable. Dessert? The Marquis, a deadly piece of chocolate, is divine. Afterward, a broad selection of boutique grappas beckons behind the bar. Play it for me, Sam. $$$; AE, DC, MC, V; no checks; dinner every day; full bar; reservations recommended
Indulge your palate in IL Bistro’s culinary classics
by Kathryn Robinson
No restaurant in Seattle has a more locals-only feel than IL Bistro, even when half of its tables are filled with tourists. It’s an amazing atmospheric sleight of hand, pulled off by a trick of location — down a hidden cobblestone alley in the elbow of Pike Place Market — and an ambiance whose reputation has been steady among cognoscenti for 26 years.
For no matter how many hotel concierges send sightseers to IL Bistro’s door, Seattle insiders treasure the place as one of the finest in town to cap a late evening, splurge on rack of lamb or woo a moody lover. The restaurant is cavernlike, but every table feels intimate. Both restaurant and bar glow in hues of muted amber, which burnishes the oak floors and coved whitewashed walls and makes everything look drenched in romance. Humphrey Bogart would look just right at IL Bistro, as would Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra or those gals from “Sex and the City.” There may be no better place in town to lure, tryst, propose or cheat than IL Bistro’s extraordinary bar; a place where waiters go to end their shifts and optimistic singles hope to not-quite-end their dates.
You get the picture. But how’s the food? When it opened more than a quarter-century ago, frontman Peter Lamb’s artful hand at ambiance (he since went on to open Queen City Grill) and chef Frank d’Aquila’s devotion to fresh ingredients (his rack of lamb still echoes off my tastebuds) helped tutor an entire city on what an Italian restaurant ought to be. As the years went by, quality ebbed and quality flowed and eventually the place found itself in the hands of new owner Dale Abrams.
Abrams retained IL Bistro’s longtime emphasis on classic meats and pastas, the most recent interpreter of which is a young chef named Maro Gjurasic. Let me state for the benefit of old fans like myself that in young chef Gjurasic’s hands, the rack of lamb remains a noble expenditure of $38, tenderly cooked and glossy with a potent sangiovese reduction.
Other classics also shine. The Caesar salad ($8) is still a model of the genre, with long spears of romaine (disappointingly wilted on one visit) dressed in a velvet cream that went bravely easy on the garlic and anchovy. A starter of vermouth prawns ($14) sautéed with garlic, basil and tomatoes, breathed full essences of sea and garden and starred fat shrimp bursting with juice. An endive salad ($12), each baby spear cradling a generous mound of citrusy Dungeness crab, was pure decadence, relieved by the occasional whisper of mint.
Gjurasic’s cleverer forays can also work. A special called summer stew ($24) was a sort of blond cioppino, brimming with crab, chunks of snapper, summer vegetables and smoked scallops, which cast their fiery resonance over the whole beautiful bowl. An unlikely halibut special ($24) was admirable, original and intensely delicious: a hunk of seared fish presented over garlic mashed potatoes, along with a blackberry reduction and a tangle of shaved fennel. The four parts collaborated like old teammates on the plate and on the palate, making this one fun to look at and compulsively satisfying to eat.
Spirits: The traditional martini revisited
By Claire Dederer
The martini is one part Gin and three parts imagination. Ever since 1938 when Thin Man William Powell said, “Let’s have dinner. I’m thirsty,” martinis have been associated with the good life. They’re a relic from a time when adulthood was a state to be desired rather than “avoided”. Male adulthood, especially, was celebrated in that drink of pure, clear alcohol. “Shaken, not stirred,” is only the most famous in a tradition of tough-guy martini meditations, including Humphrey Bogart’s alleged dying words “I should never have switched from scotch.”
Martinis are currently enjoying an alternative vogue: Bands like Combustible and Esquivel provide the soundtrack for what’s been dubbed the “Cocktail Nation,” a catch-all phrase describing indie musicians and artists obsessed with all the trappings of ’60s lounge life. Hipsters who once recognized only the gods of punk now bow to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin – while drinking the Rat Packer drink of choice. Hitting a hotel bar or seedy lounge for a few martinis is a flirtation with adulthood, a way to appropriate all that’s cool about grown-up life and, as they say in AA, leave the rest.
Opportunities to test-drive martinis in Seattle are ample. Every bar in town seems to have a special martini offer, and the annual Great Martini Classic competition (won this year by Oliver’s) has brought renewed attention to the drink. As I made my way from IL Bistro to Chez Shea to the Pink Door, the Four Seasons, Oliver’s, Von’s, the Sorrento, the Cloud Room, the Deluxe, Hattie’s Hat, and even the Crocodile, I stuck with the classic, a great deal of gin mixed with very little vermouth, served with an olive. Some were shaken; some were stirred. But to tell the truth, all tasted the same.
This observation led me to a hard and fast rule: A martini is only as good as the room it’s served in. Sure, I could detect a slight difference when higher-quality alcohol, such as Bombay Sapphire, was used, but for the most part, it all just tasted like a lot of chilled gin. What did seem to matter was the bar where I drank it. The martini I experienced at the Sorrento had a different, um, quality than the one I threw back at Hattie’s Hat, though they tasted quite similar.
Friends, colleagues, people next to me at the bar all assured me that I was wrong. They could taste the difference, why couldn’t I? I started to feel inadequate. I decided to take action. The martini people (as I had come to think of them) sent me to the legendary bartender Murray at IL Bistro, promising me that his way with a martini would soon convert me to their ranks.
When I told Murray Stenson my theory about how the quality of a martini depends on where it’s served, I expected him to give me the same disappointed look that I got from the other martini people. Instead, he erupted with “Absolutely.” Then he told me the story of Michael Jackson, the eminent wine and beer critic, who claims that Jamaican Red Stripe is his favorite beer. When asked why, Jackson replied, “The first time I had it, I was on a white sand beach surrounded by beautiful half-naked women. Whenever you’re tasting something, you must consider your surroundings.”
After Murray commiserated with me over my inability to distinguish one martin from the next, he told me that a palate for alcohol was a rare thing. “I have chefs who come in, not to get drunk, but just to taste the alcohol. They can discern the different flavors in a drink.” Murray then confessed that while his own palate was far from perfect, it didn’t prevent him from making a martini in the traditional way.
Murray learned all he knows at the proverbial knee of the late Al Black, who bartended for years at El Gaucho and then at Vito’s. You remember him. I certainly did after Murray described him: He was the tall, silent, patrician-looking one at Vito’s who died a couple of years ago. Murray used to go down to El Gaucho just to watch Al Black mix drinks.
Murray’s martini combines Black’s proficiency with the traditionalist bartending values of IL Bistro- Gin Is recommended, vodka is not. In the martini world, Murray says, “Vodka’s are upstarts.” Stir the gin with the ice exactly 40 times: “This provides maximum chilling with minimum dilution.” Pour the alcohol into the glass – at IL Bistro they use flutes – and spritz some dry vermouth on with an atomizer (no kidding). “There’s some Cary Grant-Doris Day movie where they make martini’s with an atomizer as a joke,” admits Murray, “but we do it seriously at IL Bistro.” I’ve often wondered what the vermouth is doing there at all, but Murray assured me that it’s a flavor enhancer. As for the issue of twist versus olive, Murray came down firmly on the side of the olive; “it’s more traditional.”