Machiavelli is a Seattle classic. As the Italian restaurant's tagline proclaims, it's been "a Capitol Hill tradition since 1988," which means it has been serving up veal piccata longer than many of you reading this have likely been alive. In a neighborhood that has new restaurants opening nearly every week, often at the expense of an old favorite, it's still going strong. Indeed, Machiavelli is often as busy on a Monday night as any of the newer, hipper spots in the vicinity are on a Saturday, sometimes even more so.
Machiavelli's menu does not exactly offer the type of novel and adventurous culinary delights you probably associate with Capitol Hill. Why go out to a nice dinner on the Hill to have a simple pasta Bolognese when you could go six blocks away and get some crazy sea-urchin and chili-flake spaghetti from Anchovies & Olives? The decor, too, is pretty unassuming. It has a dark-wood bar and a romantic atmosphere, despite the no-frills interior. No rooftop succulent garden, clerestory windows, or polished concrete floors here.
In the midst of the neighborhood's ongoing restaurant boom—36 new restaurants in 2016 alone, according to Capitol Hill Seattle blog, right on pace with 2015's 38—why does this comparatively simple restaurant still have lines out the door?
While there is plenty of inaccessible, high-concept pabulum in the area, there are many other places that do the relaxed neighborhood joint thing really well. Saint John's on Pike Street, for example, is much younger than Machiavelli but already feels like an old friend.
Perhaps it's just that simple Italian food is appealing. As chef Mike Easton has demonstrated so well with Il Corvo, you don't have to have fussy presentation to get people to love your pasta. Machiavelli's menu does not change, and they do not offer much in way of specials. It is the same two-page affair it's always been, with the same Italian standbys—antipasto salad, fettuccini Alfredo, spaghetti with meatballs—that Seattleites have been enjoying since shoulder pads were in fashion. And over the years, I've always left feeling that I had good, reasonably priced food (appetizers range from $3.50 to $8.95, and most entrées are in the $15 range). Indeed, I went for a belated birthday dinner last year, ate the veal saltimbocca, and left with the same vaguely positive impression.
However, when I went back to refresh those hazy memories, I was underwhelmed. The first meal I had could only be described as watery. Rarely does one adjective apply to an entire meal, from appetizer to pasta to main, but what else can I say? The Caesar salad was swimming in dressing, biting into the chicken-liver lasagna was like squeezing a sponge, and the veal piccata was awash in thin, hyper-lemony sauce. The highlight was the Columbia City bread.
A return visit was necessary. Some of the people in Seattle whom I trust the most on food—such as former Stranger critic Bethany Jean Clement (now at the Seattle Times) and my friend, fellow food lover, and Cut.com weed-smoking-grandma wrangler Chris Chan—absolutely adore Machiavelli, and so it was hard for me to even believe what my taste buds were telling me. The second time around, I had the bresaola as an appetizer, which offered a promising start. But then, it's hard to screw up cured meat. I ordered the pasta special—shells with Italian sausage, cannelloni beans, and spinach in a marinara sauce—but the sauce was, again, watery. This was especially surprising because the sauce was advertised as having a "touch of cream," confirmed by its pale red color. It wasn't horrible, but it wasn't exactly a food experience that might inspire the intense love Machiavelli fans have for the place.
I left puzzled. I had honestly expected to write a story about how Machiavelli's simple formula worked so well that it was impervious to the neighborhood's rapid changes, a best-kept secret from the tech army invaders and sustained by streetwise locals. As much of a slam dunk as that would be for a Stranger food review, it wouldn't be an entirely honest one. Certainly, you do not see the type of techies that are the target of so much local ire at Machiavelli. And both times I dined, I ran into people I've known and have been knocking around Capitol Hill with for nearly a decade.
But it's not that the locals have a secret; Machiavelli's popularity is a testament to the power of nostalgia. I can't say I love the food, but I still love going to Machiavelli. Going there now reminds me of being an extremely poor community college student and being able to occasionally feel like a normal human who could afford to eat a nice meal out once in a while. Funny how $3 glasses of house red, attentive service, and a little candlelight will do that for you. (The house red now costs a whopping $4.) For its regulars, Machiavelli likely provides a similar historical anchor—the number of couples that must have had their first date in the last 30 years at Machiavelli is probably staggering.
Maybe Machiavelli's formula is so successful not because of its food or its price point, but for those of us who have lived here a long time, the city is an increasingly foreign place. I went to high school and later college on Capitol Hill, and lived there for many years. Now when I walk around, I am often unable to pick out a single place I recognize from those days. There's nothing wrong with this phenomenon—the ship of Theseus still sailed fine after all the old boards had been replaced—but it can be unsettling at times. Institutions like Machiavelli can keep you from feeling unmoored.