Il Fornaio: Upstairs or downstairs, refuge from mall madness
Seattle Times restaurant critic
I don't like malls and shy away from high-concept restaurant chains. So, what is it that I find so appealing about Il Fornaio in Pacific Place? Why send you to this dual Italian restaurant when there are so many other swell dining options nearby?
Because downstairs in the street-level Risotteria, the mood is drop-in casual, the space colorful and comfortable, the menu eminently affordable and the service swift and personable. In short: It's the perfect grab-a-bite spot for shoppers, showgoers or anyone else in search of solid Italian fare in a cheerful relaxed setting.
Upstairs, in the more formal Ristorante, a sweeping, elegantly appointed dining room and bar await. Here, well-schooled servers in old-school dinner jackets offer a lengthier list of antipasti plus a broader spectrum of pizzas, pastas and meaty entrees than you'll find downstairs. Parents will welcome the proffered crayons and children's menu upstairs or down, though the Risotteria is this parent's choice for a family-friendlier meal.
In that lower-key setting, parents can bridge the generation gap in style, ordering cheddar-infused macaroni al formaggio for the kids ($4.95 with beverage) and cloudlike, mascarpone-soothed gnocchi quattro formaggi for themselves ($9.75 lunch/$9.95 dinner).
Solo diners and others who like to view the action in the open kitchen might choose a counter seat over a comfy leatherette booth or window table, sipping vino and nibbling warm, salt-flecked focaccia before deciding how to proceed.
Here cooks craft oblong-shaped pizzas with thin, sturdy crusts, layered with top-quality ingredients and served on wooden pizza peels ($9.50-$9.95). They impress with their rosy caper-strewn raw-beef carpaccio ($5.95/$6.50) and take license with Caesar salads ($5.95/$6.50), superfluously garnishing the chilled romaine with wan tomatoes and hardboiled egg. But they make up for it by using terrific housemade croutons, shaved Parmesan and lots of chopped anchovy.
Servers proudly mention that breads are baked in-house. Il Fornaio translates as "the baker," and the restaurant's breads are available for home consumption. A big show is made of bringing olive oil and balsamico to the table, pouring twin streams into a plate. Elsewhere, this display may seem oh-so-1995. Here you'll just smile and dip, thinking, "Man, this is good bread!"
The Risotteria has far more to offer than the dish for which it is named. Lured by the promise of pesto, pancetta and shrimp, it was hard to resist the call of the Genovese (recently replaced with a more seasonal selection). Like all of the risotti at Il Fornaio, this rib-sticker was made with carnaroli rice — revered for its high starch content and ability to soak up liquid to create the properly creamy texture. Admittedly, I've had better risotto. But not for $9.95.
Once you get a whiff of the wood smoke that permeates the dining room, a voice inside your head will say, "Have the chicken!" Among the handful of dinnertime "specialita" is an agreeable, rosemary-scented spit-roasted chicken ($11.95) with crisp roasted potatoes and a Tuscan salad (spinach, mostly). That tender chicken plays a big part in a bacon-speckled entree salad ($9.95 lunch/$10.50 dinner) and stars in the béchamel-draped cannelloni ($9.95/$10.95) as well as the cream-sauced tagliolini with mushrooms and asparagus ($9.95/$10.50).
They could lose the big slivers of undercooked garlic in the spaghetti ai fruitti di mare ($10.50 lunch/$11.50 dinner) — an otherwise delightful shellfish dish. Same for the hard-boiled egg in the lasagna Calabrese ($10.50/$11.95). That eye-popping construction, layered with crumbled sausage, sliced ham, molto mozzarella and a hefty meat "ragu," is the size of a baby's shoebox and wasn't heated through — a problem swiftly remedied by our ever-attentive server.
Up on Pacific Place's second floor, hungry crowds fill the Ristorante's reception area, spilling out into the mall on busy evenings. By day, a full quid of shoppers, conventioneers and office wonks apparently know a fine lunch spot when they see it. Though service may lag, servers never do — describing the day's specials and the restaurant's special features, including a rotating regional menu offered the first two weeks each month.
In this lively yet stately room connected to the Risotteria via a wide spiral staircase, painted murals accent the walls and windows rise 12 feet from floor to ceiling. Servers wheel food around on tiered carts, a formality that — along with the distance from kitchen to table — likely explains why our lobster ravioli ($17.95) arrived stone cold. Again, this wrong was quickly righted.
Lunching in the Ristorante, I was thrilled with a special piadina verdure ($9.50) — crisp flatbread stuffed with grilled vegetables and melted cheese poised over beautifully dressed salad greens. I can imagine myself sitting at the handsome bar some late afternoon, drinking a negroni and making a meal of the antipasto della casa sampled at dinner ($10.95 per person): gorgeous grilled artichokes and portobello mushrooms, caprese-topped bruschetta, smoked salmon wrapped in goat cheese, bocconcini rolled with imported prosciutto, scallops draped in pancetta, plus olives and caponata.
Better, though, to share a meal with friends, perhaps starting with handmade butternut-squash-and-walnut ravioli sauced with a tomato-enriched brown butter ($13.50 lunch/$14.50 dinner). And better yet when that's followed by a juicy double chicken breast, fiery with a marinade heavy with dried chili flakes ($15.50/$16.95); or the costata alla Fiorentini ($23.95, dinner only), a well-marbled, mesquite-grilled, 18-ounce rib-eye. Finish with an excellent rum-soaked tiramisu ($4.95) and, prepared for the Christmas shopping rush, you've already had the rum for your rum-pa-pum-pum.
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