Old Ballard’s New Italian
Restaurant Critics Love Volterra, But Why?
5411 Ballard Ave NW, 789-5100
Mon–Thurs 5 pm–midnight, Fri–Sat 5 pm–1 am, Sun 4–9 pm; brunch Sat–Sun 9 am–2 pm (bar is open all day Sat–Sun).
With its glowing alabaster light fixtures, tobacco-colored walls, and numerous references to the owners' wedding in the Tuscan hilltop town of Volterra, this new Italian-ish restaurant in Old Ballard seems to be striving for a certain intimacy. But in truth it is a restaurant that is better suited to large, giggly parties like the one that gathered behind my husband's left shoulder on a recent Friday night.
We were seated at a small table of equal, uncomfortable proximity to the kitchen door and the women's room—the restaurant equivalent of the last row in an airplane. As clench-jawed waiters rushed by trying to keep their tables happy on an obviously stressful night, a party of eight or so women, all clad in brightly-colored camisoles, crowded by the bathroom door, attempting to make some collective decision.
They seemed satisfied, but we had an awkward night. It turns out that we had stumbled into post-review mayhem. Somehow I had not noticed that Volterra had gotten two good reviews that week, but evidently most of Seattle had. The room was packed and the conversation ricocheted harshly off the tile floors and the not yet soundproofed ceilings. The kitchen was overwhelmed. Our waitress did everything right, acknowledging the problem and in the end, comping our dessert. But even on a more subdued second visit, the room lacked intimacy and the food lacked polish.
But does it matter what I think? Big parties are going to like Volterra for its big, sharable portions, its attentive service, and most of all its spot-on cocktails—not too sweet, but just gimmicky enough to be memorable: a lemon drop scented with rosemary ($6), a Manhattan with a hint of hazelnut ($8.50), and that crazy blue drink ($6.50) with a sage leaf that, during my second visit, kept poking up my friend's nose as he sipped.
Fancier types, too, may be reassured by the good wine selection and posh details like the yummy fennel salt and fine olive oil on the table and the candied lemon peel served with espresso. But I couldn't help but feel like there was a serious mismatch between the ambitious prices on Volterra's menu and the food itself. It's not that things were wretched, but I found it a chore to eat my dishes. And dinner out should never be a chore, especially with entrees in the $20 range.
There was the obligatory big bowl of Seattle mussels ($9), Italianized, but ordinary with a tomato broth and sausage. Compared with the copious serving of mussels, the grilled gulf shrimp ($11) seemed stingy, not just with the pricey headlining ingredient, but with its supporting cast of olives, fennel, and mâche. In fact, throughout my meals at Volterra, I felt like flavorsome ingredients were being overstretched. Normally, I'm a bread salad's biggest fan, but Volterra's panzanella was undone by too little oil and salt, mediocre tomatoes, and a low olive count ($9). On the bright side, a molded polenta treat ($9) oozed fontina when you forked into it. It was fun—the savory equivalent of a molten chocolate cake—and yummy too.
Even though they were handmade, it was hard to muster excitement for a bowl of limp noodles in a pallid cream sauce, again served with nowhere near enough veal tidbits and morels to match the pasta ($17). Spaghetti with Dungeness crab meat was disappointing too, the crabmeat shoved over to the side of the bowl and overwhelmed with the spicy-acid flavor of its tomato sauce ($18).
To the kitchen's credit, meats and seafood were cooked very well, although I remained unconvinced by some of the fixings. Eating the juicy wild boar ($19) made me feel very manly in an Asterix and Obelix kind of way. I suppose its big minerally flavor can handle something strong like Gorgonzola sauce, but in practice, the elements canceled each other out rather than complementing one another. And a tender Copper River salmon filet ($22) couldn't help being delicious—despite the indignity of being topped with cherries.
Come dessert, I did like the musky intensity of panna cotta infused with chestnut honey, but it was a rare dish that came together just right. With great Italian imports and pretty farmers' market produce, there is no reason the food at Volterra shouldn't sing, but the kitchen needs to polish and intensify its dishes. Otherwise the restaurant will be abandoned to the cocktail set and their spangly camisoles. ■