This fountain of Sicilian charm can no longer be ignored
Seattle Times restaurant critic
La Fontana Siciliana is tucked away off the central courtyard of a gracious old apartment complex in Belltown. Perhaps you've walked by on the way to Pike Place Market or driven past at night and turned your eyes toward the azure glow of the burbling fountain that gives this place its name. Maybe you've managed to ignore this inviting little Italian restaurant, despite the fact that it's been in business seven years and offers al fresco dining in summer. If so, welcome to the club. And since I've recently canceled my membership, allow me to tell you what we've been missing.
La Fontana is a breath of fresh garlic in a neighborhood enamored with wasabi. Get ready to greet the sound of Andrea Bocelli and the sight of an upright piano that brings light opera to life on weekends. With its dark wood furnishings, paper-doily placemats, brick walls and mix 'n' match knickknacks, this darling two-room dining place brings me back to my Aunt Sylvie's house in South Philly. (Granted, my aunt's house wasn't half as romantic, and the roses on her dining table were plastic.)
On early visits, instead of finding Aunt Sylvie pushing kasha varnishkas and calling me "bubbeleh," I found Marco, a Chilean waiter of Sicilian descent pushing garlic bread and referring to his customers as "family." As in: "Family! You must try the Pelissera Dolcetta D'Alba. It's just in and — Can you believe it? — only $35 for a '97!" (Modest by the all-Italian wine list's red-wine standard.) And "Family! Tonight I have for you eggplant gnocchi. A little cream, a little Taleggio, some Parmigiano-Reggiano, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience!" (It would have been, if the gnocchi, $22.95, had been slightly less gummy.)
My "brother" Marco' gestures, Ricardo Montalban accent, crisp appearance and charming proprietary demeanor are appealing. They make dining here worth every cent of the bit-too-much that owner Mario Fuenzalida is charging for food that can be quite good but is not quite great.
Take the garlic bread Marco so generously offers. Be aware that this is listed as an antipasti ($4.95), four slices of the same La Panzanella loaf he'll later present for free. Only these slices are painted with oil, scattered with garlic and toasted to a light crunch. Delizioso? Sure, but since you're buying bread-as-appetizer, have the bruschetta instead. Essentially, it's the garlic bread with add-ons: same four slices but with a mix of fragrant, olive oil-tossed tomato and basil ($6.95).
'Tis not the season for tomatoes, but you won't mind the wan specimens on the melenzana antipasti ($9.95 lunch/$10.95 dinner) once they're herbed, oiled and layered with generous rounds of grilled eggplant and fresh mozzarella. Calamari al basilico ($7.95/$10.95) comes dressed in verdant green, the chilled squid slathered with a thick, nutty pesto.
Garlicky escarole sautéed with calamata olives is meant as a starter ($7.95) but could serve as contorno (vegetable side dish) — one that would beautifully accompany agnello fighi e Marsala ($24.95). Sicily's famed fortified wine enhances the chef's lamb loin with figs. Its sweetness is evident but not overbearing in a deep reduction that plays well with the goat cheese garnish. (Ironically, longtime chef Michele Marsala shares his name with the lamb — and another bestselling dish — chicken Marsala, $16.95).
Pasta con le sarde ($15.95), the Sicilian classic, relies on sardines for its dominant flavor, and pine nuts, raisins and fennel for added texture. I couldn't talk my dining companions into allowing me to order it on either occasion. Even though I was convinced that the sardines would be far more interesting than the bay scallops, shrimp and squid starring in an uninspired seafood risotto ($19.95) they devoured. Worse, when I returned alone for lunch, I found the pasta con le sarde absent from the abbreviated menu. Mario's wife, my server, explained that the lunch chef couldn't make it by special request. I consoled myself with pollo ai formaggi ($12.95 lunch, $17.95 dinner), a buxom breast of chicken, pan-seared then baked with a bright tomato sauce crowned with a meld of four cheeses — heavy on the mozzarella.
Among the pastas is a sensational tortellini gorgonzola liberally laced with cream and basil ($15.95). A pleasant plateful of fresh saffron linguine tossed with a rich, roasted red pepper-laden tomato sauce offered a penurious number of shrimp given the price: $21.95. The house-made desserts ($7) included a tantalizingly tart if overly frozen lemon sorbetto and a decent cannoli that, with all due respect, wasn't half as good as the ones I get when dining with my other family in South Philadelphia.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information in this article, originally published December 14, was corrected December 15. Waiter Marco Orostica, singled out for special praise, was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.