Blessed union brings best of Tuscany to Ballard
Seattle Times restaurant critic
5411 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; 206-789-5100
Web site: www.volterrarestaurant.com
Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. Mondays- Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays; brunch 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; bar open 4:30 p.m.-midnight Mondays-Thursdays, 4:30 p.m.- 1 a.m. Fridays and 9 a.m.-closing Saturdays-Sundays.
Prices: starters $7-$11, salads $7-$9, pastas $13-$18, meats/ seafood $17-$24, desserts/cheeses $6-$11.
Wine list: lengthy and molto Italiano.
Sound: very loud (quieter in bar area).
Who should go: lovers of good Italian food and convivial settings who don't mind reading lips while they suck up spaghetti.
Full bar / credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, V / no obstacles to access / smoking on patio only.
Don Curtiss and Michelle Quisenberry were married late last summer in Volterra, a hill town in Tuscany. The romance continues in Seattle, where they've opened a Tuscan-inspired restaurant in the heart of old Ballard.
For those who didn't attend the wedding (a large Seattle contingent did), beautiful black-and-white photos of the event are part of the décor that has transformed an old familiar space — Burk's Café — into an intriguing new spot for dinner and weekend brunch.
Burk's old floor tiles help create a damning din in the sky-lit dining room, but the hand-carved alabaster lighting fixtures are newly imported from Volterra. Instead of crocks of pickled okra on wooden tabletops, you'll find slender bottles of Tuscan olive oil and housemade fennel-salt.
At the stainless-steel-topped bar, patrons hang out and eat, sipping fabulous freezer-cold limoncello liqueur made in-house.
Back in the kitchen, Curtiss creates solid, straightforward Italian fare inspired by much time spent in Tuscany — and many years spent in some of Seattle's favorite Italian kitchens, including Al Boccalino, Assaggio and Il Fornaio. His wife, once a full-time financial consultant, is a restaurant neophyte. Not that you'd know it. On the job since April, she's taken to restaurant management as smoothly as chestnut honey takes to her husband's panna cotta ($6). And she oversees a remarkably personable staff whose level of professionalism boosts this casual neighborhood newcomer straight into the big leagues.
When your server asks whether you'd like a bellini, a flute of thyme-scented Prosecco married with a puree of white peaches ($6), say "I do." And when you need assistance with a wine list whose tour of Italy offers a broad selection of vini Toscani, be assured this crew will be up to the task.
They get all the little things right: They're quick to suggest a sampling of an unfamiliar wine or weigh in on your pasta choices. The busboys are ever ready with another basket of bread, or a cloth for removing splatters of lamb ragu. After-dinner coffee is presented (Bellissimo!) on a petite tray with biscotti and a sliver of candied lemon peel.
Indecisive guests might begin a meal with "little bites" ($9 per person), daily-changing selections prettily arranged on a ceramic "artist's palette." Our bites-for-two included only one thriller: slices of house-smoked beef tenderloin. Otherwise it was a fine sampling including chilled prawns, a few slices of salami and cheeses, marinated mushrooms and tomato with fresh mozzarella.
Me? I'd rather skip the stuff on the palette and go for the wow-factor on the palate, say, the mussels with sausage ($9). Save the garlic bruschetta to soak up that superb sauce laced with tomato and Italian sausage, or use the broad shells of these plump Mediterranean mussels. And oh that polenta with wild mushrooms ($9)! Envision the molten-chocolate cake concept. Now replace the ramekin of cake with silky-soft polenta, the molten chocolate with fontina cheese, and the whipped cream with porcini, morels and truffle oil. Swooning yet?
I'm all for sharing pastas as an intermezzo course, but would be happy to hoard ribbons of Curtiss' fresh pappardelle, with an oomphy tomato sauce enriched by shards of roast duck ($18). Or spring risotto dotted with fava beans and slivers of guanciale (pork jowl with a hint of bacon-y magic, $16). Simple pleasures and clear flavors make spaghetti with Dungeness crab a winning combo ($18), and rich rewards will be found in a bowl of bowtie pasta tossed with smoked chicken, fresh vegetables, tomato-cream sauce and soft goat cheese ($15).
Looking for a plate of greens? You won't find it in the panzanella ($9), which takes a more traditional Tuscan approach to this "day-old" bread salad than other local dining spots. Volterra leaves out the leaves and ups the ante with white beans and ricotta salata.
It doesn't get much greener though — or much better — than a sauté of spinach with pine nuts and currants ($7). Billed as a salad, the spinach, like the steamed asparagus appetizer with crescenza cheese sauce ($7), makes a perfect side dish. As if you needed one to go along with your entree. You don't. Not when the kitchen offers entree-sides like sautéed broccoli rabe. Potato sides come either mashed, herb-roasted or pressed into a luscious gratin, and they're all outstanding.
All of the entrees I sampled were good, including the veal Marsala with morels (a tad overcooked for me, $19), wild boar tenderloin with a gorgonzola-and-mustard cream sauce (not as wild tasting as you'd imagine, $19) and the classic bistecca alla Fiorentina (interpreted as a 14-ounce hunk of gorgeously grilled bone-in New York strip, a bargain at $24).
But I found myself sitting up straighter in my chair and saying, "Whoa!" after taking my fork to a half-chicken ($17), boned but for its winglet and roasted to a golden crisp. Equally simple and sublime was seafood baked in parchment ($22). Wine, butter, herbs and precise cookery brought fresh shellfish and Copper River sockeye (the night's special) to a level of greatness. Like the service here, that fine-tuned quality is part of the welcome surprise that is Volterra.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company