The Transformation of a Capitol Hill Gem
"H oly cow!" the man said. He'd just walked into the new back room of Pettirosso on Capitol Hill. It was obviously the first time he'd been in since the place reopened, and he marveled for good reason. Where before, if memory serves, a small hallway with some tables crammed in ended unceremoniously at a table topped with a tub full of dirty dishes, there is now a perfectly lovely dining room. It's low-ceilinged and cozy, pretty without looking like it's trying too hard—a true triumph in this era of overdesigned restaurants-as-"concepts." Highlights of the simple decor: a big old metal freight elevator door (original); a huge mirror; light fixtures protected by cages, originally intended for gymnasium use; and a set of carved double doors rumored to have come from one of Victor Rosellini's legendary restaurants. Three framed photographs from the city archives show that Pettirosso's building used to be an auto parts store called Nagle's, that the building on the corner now selling schmancy home accoutrements used to sell Aladdin Trailer Homes, and that the site of the Wildrose used to offer haircuts for 25 cents.
The guy who exclaimed "Holy cow!" appeared to be coming in for dinner with his mother, which is the kind of ordinary, sweet thing you'll see at Pettirosso every time you're there. Another night, a woman on a date unselfconsciously wore a halo of big red hearts made out of felt tied around her head with a ribbon. At holiday time, if you got the table in one corner, you had an old-timey radiator warming your back and, in front of you, the sight and smell of a big, noble, twinkling Christmas tree. The bar is also an extra pleasant place to be, with decent wine at low prices and some of the thoughtful cocktails costing only $7—which makes you feel like Pettirosso really wants you to enjoy the neighborhood, more so than putting another dollar or two in their pockets.
Who is the "they" behind the new version of Pettirosso? They are Miki and Yuki Sodos, the nearly unbelievably nice sisters who run Bang Bang Cafe in Belltown (which everyone says is great, and also reportedly serves one of the only defensible breakfast burritos around—alas, no such thing on the Pettirosso menu. Yet!). Yuki used to work at Pettirosso in its former life as a tiny cafe. The baker who fills the front case with gorgeous tarts and éclairs and more is Eric Todd, who, it turns out, worked with Yuki at B&O Espresso years ago. And getting the kitchen up and running is Nick Castleberry, who started out at Sitka & Spruce, was the chef at Artemis when it was good (and extant), and then, for a while, cooked a superlative version of pub grub at the Summit Tavern.
Castleberry believes in making good, simple food with good, simple ingredients, an approach that is exactly right for Pettirosso. The daytime menu has bagels (on the squishy side), "little things" (brûléed grapefruit, house-made yogurt), breakfast plates, and sandwiches. In the latter category, there's a fine grilled cheese (Essential Baking Company bread, Havarti, and Beecher's Flagship, $6.95), and the beef brisket—on a demi-baguette with pesto and grilled onions and Mama Lil's peppers—is spicy and tender and messy and great (and worth the $9.75, which includes a bag of Tim's chips).
Eveningtime brings a menu that includes the sandwiches, soup (good chicken noodle, though one night the noodles were disintegrating), a salad (like fresh and well-dressed mixed greens with a trifecta of goodies: Rogue blue cheese, Marcona almonds, and roasted beets), and a handful of entrées. The bollito misto ($17)—an Italian stew—was a big bowl of beefy, oily, yummy broth stuffed full of Painted Hills brisket, a Draper Valley chicken leg, Cascioppo Brothers sausage, potatoes, and carrots, with a citrusy-tart cranberry mostarda on the side for a blast of extra flavor. "It makes me happy that it's so cold out," the person who ordered it said (and this person had just been complaining about exactly that). A chicken breast ($16) with the leg still attached was fatly full of chickeny flavor, with visible twigs of thyme on the crispy skin; it rested on a snowdrift's worth of mashed potatoes, properly salted and creamy but still luxuriously thick. Whole cloves of roasted garlic plus garlic slices were scattered about, and the thyme pan jus drizzled around it all was exactly what you wanted, like gravy but lighter and more refined. Also on the menu recently: shepherd's pie ($12) with a cheesy-crisped potato top, another great dish for just before lying down for a long winter's nap, and a soba noodle bowl ($12) that tasted strongly of ginger and not much else.
In its old incarnation, Pettirosso's only problem (that I ever heard about, and it's located one block away from The Stranger's offices) was that they were too nice, meaning they'd talk and talk when you were at the counter, and then your order sometimes took forever. The service at Pettirosso now is nice in a way that could hardly be better: They read you like a book, remember you (and what you drank) from last time, make you feel right at home, know when to check on you and when to leave you alone. Pettirosso was a neighborhood gem before, and as Pike/Pine gets more theme-park-like by the moment, it's now even more so: with more room, and more choices, and a feeling of real happiness to have you, happiness to be there.