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Friday, October 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

At Cafe Lago diners get the joy of (Italian) cooking

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Cafe Lago


2305 24th Ave. E., Seattle, 206-329-8005

Italian

***

$$$

Reservations: recommended

Hours: dinner served daily: 5-9 p.m. Sundays-Mondays; 5-9:30 Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Brunch served 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

Prices: dinner starters $5.95-$15.95; entrees $14-$24.95; brunch $5.95-$14.95 (children's items available $2.95-$4.95).

Wine list: entirely Italian, predominantly red, exceedingly small and helpfully annotated, this dozen-label list (the majority priced under $35 and available by the glass) is geared toward value and substance.

Sound: noisy when busy, due to the dining room's size and hard surfaces.

Full bar / all major credit cards / no obstacles to access / no smoking.

Remember when wood-fired ovens and open kitchens were the exception to the rule? When you couldn't pronounce the word gnocchi — let alone find it on a menu? Can you recall when fresh mozzarella was as much a novelty as fresh, handmade pasta? When it was beyond cool to dip artisan bread into extra-virgin olive oil?

Café Lago, riding the early wave of a culinary tsunami, was among the first to introduce Seattle to the joys of simplicity in Italian cookery.

In 1990, Jordi Viladas and Carla Leonardi opened their tiny 30-seat Montlake trattoria offering a short roster of rustic Italian fare in a neighborhood setting.

Twelve years and two expansions later, longtime customers and first-timers alike can appreciate today's Cafe Lago, where the menu's changed little despite major alterations in the restaurant's appearance and in Seattle's culinary landscape.

Where the cafe was once cozy and colorful, it's now spacious and spare. Much of what lured us here in the first place remains, however, including a limited menu built around antipasti, pizza and handmade pastas — including "Seattle's finest" potato gnocchi and lasagna "unlike any you have ever had" (no immodest exaggeration on either count).

Recent years have wrought welcome changes: a wood-fired grill, a bar, doubled seating capacity and the advent of reservations.

Service, on two of three visits, was exemplary. On a third it was tentative tableside, the kitchen tardy between courses. As before, prices are skewed higher than one would expect in this casual setting. As always, quality has its price.

Today you can enjoy a proper martini as precursor to a deftly grilled New York steak enhanced by an impressive char and the sweet, smoky undertones of apple wood ($24.95). A swath of Gorgonzola ups the beef's ante, as do roasted onions and sweet peppers and the wood-barrel accents of a mighty balsamico reduction that ensures no one will be asking for A.1.

Steak, served with eggs ($14.95), is also available at weekend brunch, which recently made its debut and has yet to attract the following it deserves. Brunch could easily begin or end with, or just encompass, coffee and a scone: the former a smooth, robust blend, the latter small and dense with a delectably short crumb ($3).

Like the impossibly creamy house-made vanilla ice cream topped with espresso (at brunch, $3.50) and fresh berries (at dinner, $3.95), "Sausage and Pepper with Eggs in Bocca" ($9.95) illustrates the simplicity and care that is key to the cafe's success. Two eggs, yolks still runny, are fried in a hollowed slice of rustic bread laved with a chunky sauce remarkable for its slow-glow hit of capsicum and rife with Italian sausage, tomatoes and peppers. Pristine salad greens, augmented with quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt, are anything but an afterthought.

The same colorful greens, available à la carte, may be followed by day with a pizza, calzone or vegetable fritatta and accompany an impossibly elegant meatball sandwich ($9.95). Small, plentiful and lighter than any meatball has a right to be, these gently herbed orbs, anointed with marinara and Provolone, rest on a crusty roll best eaten with a knife and fork.

Dinner must begin with an antipasto plate ($15.95) — a shareable sampling of savories: Italian cured meats, cheeses, roasted garlic and several antipasti that may be ordered individually ($6.95-$7.95). Among them, olivata-spread bruschetta; oven-roasted peppers and fresh mozzarella; caper- and olive-laden caponata; and the best of the lot, grilled "City of Seattle" eggplant, the smoky purple fruit oozing with oil and garlic.

Few will deny the appeal of pizza as appetizer, its blistered crust, handspun and slender, supporting variations on the Bounty of Italy theme. From the straightforward Neapolitan (marinara, mozzarella, basil, $14) to the more substantial Salsiccia (fennel-stoked sausage, roasted red peppers, marinara and fontina, $15.95), any among the quintet offered make a fine dinner.

Café Lago's lasagna ($16.95) is a meatless marvel well known for its ethereal layers of pasta, an infusion of béchamel and ricotta and a bright, intense sauce aglow with ripe tomato flavor.

But unlike the similarly transparent ravioli with Swiss chard — delicate pasta pillows splashed with the same sunny sauce ($16.95) — the lasagna struck me as clunkier than taste-memory recollected.

I ordered it a second time, with other veteran Café Lago-goers who were also convinced that the fabled lasagna, now made in greater quantity, had perhaps sacrificed some of its former otherworldliness.

Maybe Jordi's passing his pasta-making duties off to lesser mortals. Or maybe we're just spoiled. After all, there was a time when the lasagna would have been 86'd by 8 p.m. After we'd waited an hour for a table. Now, hallelujah, there's usually a table waiting for us.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

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