A bottle of red, a bottle of white
Whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight
I’ll meet you anytime you want
In our Italian Restaurant.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, so I admit it: I saw Billy Joel in concert recently. The Piano Man’s still got it. His music, like a good plate of pasta, is familiar and enduring, yet capable of inspiring. And those lyrics from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” epitomize this month’s quest for a great Italian meal. We invited three restaurants specializing in northern regional cuisine to prepare a meal fit for a fine February date. C’mon…we’re talking Valentines Day, red wine, candlelight – ingredients for a sweet romantic (non-teenage) night. The scenes from these Italian restaurants were quite different, with one suiting my mood – and my mate’s – a bit more than the others.
BIZZARRO ITALIAN CAFÉ: Winner
Scene: Enter a room that looks like the Fremont Sunday Market uprooted by a tornado. Bizzarro has bikes, furniture, and assorted eccentricities strewn about its walls and ceiling. A huge prosciutto slicer plunked in the middle of it all – on purpose. This place is… fun! The staff is into it, beckoning us to a choice of tables lit by chandeliers, Chinese lanterns, candles, and maybe even a traffic signal. Chef/owner Mike Easton greets us, as he does many of the regulars and newcomers who smile as they walk through the door. I dig his philosophy. He’s a locavore, striving to source ingredients (organic meats, produce and dairy) from within a 300-mile radius. This shows in a salad of local apples, gruyere and simple greens tossed with hazelnut oil. Everything but the ice-cream is made in-house, and we sense that in the parpadelle cooked al dente, gracefully accented with just the right amount of truffle oil. Subtle and superb! And Easton believes in trying to use the whole animal, rebelling against the notion that meat is simply the sterile cuts we see Saran-wrapped in Styrofoam trays at the supermarket. On this occasion, he gleefully describes transforming the dining room into a makeshift butcher-shop for a pig slaughtered just yesterday. He’s making sausage, salumi, and a first-time try at pig-ears with the bounty; today, we have the fortune to enjoy house-made gnocchi with broiled tongue ‘n‘ cheek. While we’ve had lighter gnocchi elsewhere, this version holds up well with the delicate, delectable slices of fresh facial meat. Some saba-topped panna cotta closes out the meal, and with a clink of glasses of Madeira, a delightful date came to a close. My hope is that Bizzarro keeps up its quirkiness, and that Easton continues to both comfort and challenge his customers. (I mean that tongue ‘n’ cheek.)
Scene: Step off the new Seattle Streetcar (aka SLUT), walk away from McDonald’s, and slip into a spectacle smacking of Vegas – full of glamour and glitter. This is Barolo. To the left, a dramatically lit marble bar, drawing young professionals, ever-so-chic. And to the right, the expansive dining room, stunning and sleek. The food, too, is a sight to behold, much of it originating from nineteenth century family recipes, according to owner Leo Varchetta. He starts us off with fegato grasso e fagioli, a powerful wake-up call for the taste buds. The foie gras, perfectly crisp outside and silkily creamy inside, is complemented by the cannellini beans, then enriched by a port wine reduction. Next is cured salmon over a bed of greens, the plate polka-dotted with colorful sauces, beautiful in presentation though baffling in connection to northwest Italy. (It’s Chef James Best’s homages to our northwest.) Also artistic is a rack of lamb: three New Zealand chops in amarone sauce with cherries, accompanied by a wonderful selection of roasted vegetables carefully laid out on the ceramic canvas. Where Barolo really shines, though, is in its house-made pasta. The gnocchi, made with potato and ricotta, is luscious and light and would stand well on its own. But in the gnocchi al fagiano, it is overwhelmed by the braised pheasant, the rich cheese and sauce, and – lo and behold – more foie gras. This, to me, epitomizes the experience at Barolo: mouth-wateringly delicious, but sometimes excessive. It’s rich food for rich people, or those wanting to play rich, at a see-and-be-seen place.
THE CELLAR BISTRO
Scene: Walk down a long hallway and reach a cavernous area. A stand holds a mammoth, red-frosted cake that sort of matches the rich red walls. At Cellar Bistro, there’s a dark, intimate feeling with just a handful of candlelit tables in each alcove, affording a sense of romance and privacy. Chef/owner Ken Slack aims to please, proud of portions that pretty much guarantee a doggie bag for the next day’s lunch, though quantity sometimes prevails over quality. The antipasto platter features a nice variety of meats, cheeses and briny bites. Salads are fresh and functional, though without any wow factor worthy of recommending one over another. Our favorite entrée is the penne with chicken. The pasta, though not house-made, is perfectly cooked, with asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, and toasted pine nuts lending flavor and texture; a topping of warm goat cheese does the dish proud. We also enjoy the signature meat lasagna topped with a trio of sauces: marinara, garlic cream and pesto. Flavorful, but the intent of the Italian flag falls short as we barely see or even taste evidence of the green pesto. As we eat our aforementioned red velvet (triple-layer chocolate) cake, we take note of the velvet paintings of the likes of Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra on the walls and the plastic vines and grape clusters on the ceiling. Cellar Bistro tries hard to feel like an Italian restaurant. A bit kitschy, but a place which provides pleasing pasta dishes that sometimes rise above pedestrian, making it a nice neighborhood joint worthy of a walk, or maybe even a drive.
Note: Scroll over photos for a brief description of what you’re seeing.