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.