Food & Drink

Destination Good

Italian Food You'll Dream About in Rainier Beach

Destination Good

Kelly O

NEXT TO A NAIL SALON Inside, it’s cozy, adorable, affordable, and delicious.

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First, some context: Cafe Vignole—a two-year-old Italian restaurant in the South Lake area of Rainier Beach, near the Seattle border—is on a block that could generously be described as inauspicious. Part of a forlorn-looking stretch of what must have once been a thriving little business district, the cafe sits next to a nail salon and a real-estate office that abuts an overgrown vacant lot. A late-night barbershop and an auto-repair place anchor the other, mostly vacant, side of the street. The number 7 bus terminates two stops beyond the restaurant; as we waited for the bus back, the driver initially passed us, exclaiming apologetically, "I've never seen anyone at that stop before!"

It's been written recently in this space ["Newly Beloved," Bethany Jean Clement, Feb 19] that Seattle has more than enough Italian restaurants, and that may be true. However, Cafe Vignole is the kind of neighborhood gem that Southeast Seattle—particularly Rainier Beach, which has suffered more than most parts of the city from the economic downturn—desperately needs. It's cozy, adorable, affordable, and friendly. More importantly, it's good—not graded-on-a-curve good, not thank-God-it's-not-another-Tutta-Bella-or-Via-Tribunali good, but extraordinarily good. Literally dream-about-it-that-very-night good. Destination good. And since it's practically in Renton, that's saying something.

We started a recent Saturday-night meal with the chicken-liver terrine ($8) and the special salad ($13), a grilled-romaine-and-shrimp concoction that sounded too good to resist. The terrine—served on charmingly mismatched tableware with cornichons and a generous pile of grilled bruschetta—had a more pronounced liver flavor than the cream-and-butter-enriched pâtés so popular on overpriced charcuterie platters. As far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing; my dining partner, on the other hand, found that a little went a long way.

However, we fought over the salad, a small miracle that demonstrated how the right technique can make ordinary ingredients—lettuce, egg yolks, lime juice, prawns—taste extraordinary. Romaine hearts were very lightly grilled, then chilled and topped with a lime-scented Caesar dressing; the prawns, arranged in an attentive-looking circle around the lettuce, were perfectly juicy, slightly spicy, and still blazing hot from the grill.

Will you believe me if I tell you that the plain cheese ravioli ($12) outmatched its chichi counterparts at places like La Spiga and Tavolàta? It did. The two-toned pasta pillows—white pasta on top with a surprise of green pasta underneath—were ethereal, almost overstuffed with fluffy herbed ricotta and cooked just until they still had a little bite. The sauce—a standard red, on the thin rather than chunky side—was subtle, but then anything more aggressive would have been overkill.

The baby back ribs—highly recommended in The Stranger's reader reviews, and an insane bargain at $16—is the kind of dish I'd eat if I were going into battle. Pungently flavored with rosemary and kalamata olives, meltingly soft, and big enough to feed a small family, the four ribs topped two creamy slabs of baked polenta—nothing fussy, just simple food, flawlessly executed. Two juicy baked pork cutlets ($16), each as big as a tea saucer, came topped with a spicy tomato sauce and just the right amount of sliced mozzarella—enough to enjoy a little with each bite without feeling like you're eating a pile of cheese. Slightly al dente sautéed green beans were a refreshing counterpoint in what was otherwise a pretty meat- and starch-heavy meal.

Cafe Vignole started in 2006 as an odd Italian-Southern hybrid serving polenta and pasta alongside shrimp and grits. In its current incarnation, however, the only hint of a Southern accent is on the dessert menu, whose red-velvet and black-eyed-pea cakes Stranger reader-reviewers swear by, and on the restaurant's answering machine, where a woman's voice informs callers that the restaurant's name is pronounced veen-yo-lay.

Too many Seattle residents' notion of Southeast Seattle doesn't extend past Columbia City, which is a shame. While that trendy, bustling neighborhood has its culinary charms—the shrimp po'boy at Columbia City Ale House, the jerk ribs at Island Soul—they're few and far between enough to make a new destination restaurant (just a half-hour bus ride from downtown) very welcome news. recommended

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Comments (15) RSS

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Sounds like a great place and every reasonable person that posted backed that up. I just called and they seemed very nice inviting us to bring our children as "We're a neighborhood restaurant."

But WOW! Can I have a side of vitriol with these uninformed negative opinions. I don't really need to hear from seemingly bored yahoo's with caustic negative streaks who I'm guessing like the sound of their own voice over anyone else's. Tell me what you do like while swinging those cudgels.

For the record I also like Tutta Bella's and find them consistently good. The Columbia City location has an awesome (really) Tiramisu.
Posted by James P on November 23, 2012 at 5:33 PM · Report this
I just had the best Italian meal in my 20 years in Seattle at Cafe Vignole. I will go back many times. In addition to the sublime food, the unprententious atmosphere was exceedlingly appealing. Try it!
Posted by midtown1 on May 3, 2009 at 8:43 AM · Report this
my husband and I were really surprised and pleased with our first dinner at Vignoles last nite. Rainy thurs nite and the place was full. Great food reasonable prices and not all the glitz. this is not a fast paced restaurant, the tables were spaced and not on top of each other. the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly and you could talk to each other without shouting over the noise.
Food was exceptional. Will make this a weekly visit.
Posted by jeriohs on April 4, 2009 at 1:33 AM · Report this
Hey Kip, You wit and astounding grace is an inspiration to everyone who reads your carefully thought out comments. You are truly a class act!

Seriously, how are the foreclosures going? Last count you've already 20 properties lost this year and another 30 or so circling the drain. Have you considered spending less time blogging and more time digging your ass out of the steaming pile of shit you are sitting in?
Posted by little monkey on April 1, 2009 at 10:53 PM · Report this
It's true, just like Jeff said. It's a a nice, super-affordable neighborhood restaurant that really does serve amazing food. It's obvious the guy can definitely cook. There's no need to be snotty and competitive -- just go and have dinner there and decide for yourself. My husband and I have been going there almost every other week since last summer and have loved every dish and dessert we've had.
Posted by Toodles on March 13, 2009 at 8:53 PM · Report this
it's nice to see reviews of restaurants other than those new yuppie joints bethany wants to spend the stranger's money on just to say she's been.

thanks, erica, can't wait to try it out!
Posted by way before cantinetta on March 8, 2009 at 12:42 AM · Report this
And Tutta Bella is best avoided, regardless of the owner's virtues. Their pizzas are soggy and bitter tasting, especially those with tomato sauce.
Posted by Jim Demetre on March 7, 2009 at 3:06 PM · Report this
Well done. I'll need to visit.
Posted by Jim Demetre on March 7, 2009 at 1:21 PM · Report this
You just have to taste it to appreciate how good it is. The ribs are like no other I've tasted--and I've been sampling Seattle's rib selections for 40 years, including those famous ribs made by Mr. Hinterberger. These are tops.

Everything else has been surprising as well, including the Pizza which, in my humble opinion is the best in a neighborhood that has some darn good pizza. Very good prices, a nice selection of affordable wines, a family atmosphere and yes, a nice neighborhood hang out as well.


Posted by Jeff on March 6, 2009 at 5:11 PM · Report this
Cafe Vignole serves not only outstanding food, but they don't charge arms or legs for it. Haters be hatin', but my Italian fiancee dubbed their bruschetta "better than her mom's." And that's saying something.

Posted by remarkablyadept on March 5, 2009 at 8:23 PM · Report this
Well, well, "foodie", *if that is your real name*, how much did the owner of this steaming pile of fetid pasta pay you? I wouldn't pay a dime for his OVER COOKED stew of bacteria. Unless I really wanted to experience diarrhea again.
Posted by Kip Schoning on March 5, 2009 at 3:00 PM · Report this
Tutta Bella is one of the best pizza places in Seattle and the owner is not only one of the nicest guys I’ve ever meet but the model for what a business owner should strive for. Gives all his people health care, pays them as much as his budget will possibly allow, works 50-60 hours a week. We should be celebrating this approach to running a business in our great state, not taking shots at it without doing the homework.
Posted by Foodie on March 5, 2009 at 1:47 PM · Report this
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Sorry, sounds like just another boring version of Italian c/o Seattle. Ribs? Polenta? Two-toned pasta? Chicken liver terrine? That's pretty boringly chi-chi to me. I'll bet it's expensive as hell too.

Hardly neighborhood hang-out fare. God I miss SpeakEasy.
Posted by coggie on March 4, 2009 at 3:55 PM · Report this
although it is refreshing to see you kindly review a small place, aren't you the "political' reporter??? oh i forgot anyone can review at the stranger how modern
Posted by beright on March 4, 2009 at 1:52 PM · Report this

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