Friday, June 11, 2010

Uneven Italian food

Two or three years ago a large destination restaurant appeared in our neighborhood. Well, it didn't just apppear: It replace some of those quaint quirky little shops you get in an old Seattle neighborhood — the ones that you always mean to go into but never quite get around to investigating. They included a lawnmower sharpening place, a piano store that never seemed to be open, and a pottery studio and classroom that all the local moms and kids adored.

Now it's a handsome Italian ristorante (not a trattoria) with a cafe so authentic that whenever I step in there I swear I'm back in Italy.

Back in Italy? Yes, this is going to be one of those blog posts by someone who lived in a foreign country for a year and now thinks she knows what authentic regional food is like. I'm prepared to take that stance and defend it. Read on.

The Scholarly Gentleman and I hadn't rushed over to try out Picolino because we were afraid of being lynched by our neighbors. Picolino not only eradicated the pottery studio and gobbled up a half-block of storefronts that a local landowner had left as "reasonable rent" properties in her will, it created a lot of noise and traffic. Picolino's enormous outdoor summer dining area is about 15 feet from the windows of the house next door. It has no dedicated parking. To say that the residential neighbors (who fought the place at every stage in construction) are unhappy would be to vastly understate the situation. They hold a grudge that is virtually Sicilian.

We were on our way into downtown Ballard for pizza when the Scholarly Gentleman suggested that we try Picolino. It was mid-week, and just 6 p.m., so it wasn't crowded. Here are our observations:

• The service is good; not just good, but intelligent. The server quickly adjusted his suggestions and recommendations when he realized I was familiar with Italian food. He gets huge points for setting the grated cheese next to the serving of pasta carbonara, at a distance from my serving of pasta Puttanesca. A Puttanesca has anchovies, and Italians don't put cheese on dishes that have fish.

• The focaccia is the best I've had since leaving Genoa. Genoa is where focaccia originated, so that's saying a lot. Not only does Picolino have a great focaccia recipe, they are using a buttery olive oil that is just the way Genovese olive oils taste.

• The appetizer we selected, fritto misto, was tasty but odd in a few ways: The first was that since it was completely calamari, there was nothing misto (mixed) about it. (Fritto misto is a coastal Italian dish of tiny squid, tiny fish, and tiny shell-on shrimp.) The squid was fresh and tender and the batter used for the frying was delicious. But it was also a heavy batter with a lot of oil attached. And the portion was enormous. And did I mention that the aioli was not a delicate mayonnaise with garlic, but was a pinkish glob heavily flavored with smokey chipotle? All these were warning signals for what happened with our pasta dishes.

• The SG's spaghetti carbonara was like nothing I ever tasted in Italy. It had large, postage-stamp-shaped pieces of pancetta (ham) rather than the tiny chunks of pancetta I'd expected. There was little evidence of the eggs that are usually scrambled directly into the hot pasta. Instead, there was a thick, unbelievably rich cheese sauce. The first few tastes were delicious, but quickly became cloyingly. We took half the (again, enormous) serving home in a box; heated up the next day, it exuded about four tablespoons of oil. Scary.

• My Puttanesca was a disappointment. I use Puttanescas (and Arrabiatas) as a measure of the quality of an Italian restaurant. They are quickly assembled, and depend almost entirely on the quality of the ingredients and, for the Puttanesca, on the balance between the ingredients (capers, kalamata-type olives, anchovies, garlic, hot pepper flavoring, and tomatoes). One taste of the dish told me that the anchovies were either missing or negligible. The olives, on the other hand, were big and bitter, and barely chopped up. The capers, which are often chopped, were whole, meaning that they didn't lend much character to the sauce unless you bit down on one. Overall, this was a tomato sauce with bitter olives in it. It was also odd to find such a bold sauce paired with a thin spaghetti — that type of pasta is usually reserved for children's food or delicate sauces.

I'm willing to try Picolino again, with a larger group, to see if they do other dishes better. It's possible we just made some unfortunate choices. And I've got to have more of that focaccia.