Tim Schlecht
Tim Schlecht

One of the only things I miss about East Coast cities is the Italian neighborhoods. I spent a lot of time wandering around Boston's North End and New York's Little Italy, and both neighborhoods were magical facets of the urban experience. On random days, there would be parades for the feast of some saint or another, featuring hordes of impossibly old women dressed in black, crossing themselves and kissing their rosaries with frightening ardor. The best part of those neighborhoods is the food, and not that red-and-white-checkered-tablecloth, fancy-pants bullshit. Once you shake off your inner tourist, you find that the ideal Italian restaurant is a tiny joint with no interior-design sense that serves messy plates of good food for cheap prices.

At the turn of the last century, Rainier Valley was known as Garlic Gulch thanks to the sudden influx of migrant Italian mine workers, but when the mining dried up, they moved elsewhere. Rainier Valley has been the home of continually refreshing waves of immigrants ever since. Deep in the heart of what was Garlic Gulch, Da Pino's little storefront meat shop and restaurant has the charm of a tiny Little Italy bistro and the pluck of an early Billy Joel song. The first thing you see on walking into Da Pino is a case filled with meats and sausages that are cured on-site. You can buy meats deli-style, but that would be missing the point; Da Pino has a second, tiny room with four tables interspersed among pallets of restaurant supplies and bottled water—and that's the place to be.

Da Pino's menu is pretty small—some salads, a couple soups, and hot and cold sand-wiches. There's a menu board with two daily pasta specials and a cooler filled with Italian beer and Pepsi products. If you want an elaborate menu with every pasta option available to you all at once, perhaps an Olive Garden would be more your speed—Da Pino's is canny enough to understand that the appeal of Italian food is in its simplicity, not in its all-inclusiveness.

The ravioli al Gorgonzola ($13.95) is a perfect example of simple done to perfection: thin ravioli, exactly as firm as it should be, stuffed with sharp Gorgonzola cheese, and covered in an Alfredo sauce that subtly supports the Gorgonzola's bite. It's exciting to taste a plate of pasta that's been planned from start to finish—the pine nuts garnishing the dish are an ideal companion on the journey of cheese, rounding out the flavors into a gorgeous ensemble piece.

The real star at Da Pino is the meat, and there's any variety of cold sandwiches to try them out. The coppa ($6.95) is basically a very good ham-and-provolone sandwich with mustard; but the prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich ($8.95) is phenomenal. The meats are all at just the right level of saltiness, shaved to a wispy layer, then stacked: Da Pino's cured meats achieve a level of craftsmanship that you don't often find in this Oscar Mayer world.

The apex of Da Pino's meat case is the house-made sausages, which are frequently served up in the daily pasta specials, and are always on the menu in the con salsiccia sandwich ($7.95). Da Pino's sausages are brilliantly balanced affairs: There's enough fennel to suggest freshness, but not enough to overpower; there are hints of oregano and basil throughout. I can't recall the last sausage I had that was this good.

In a remarkable twist, Da Pino's vegetale sandwich ($6.95) is also wickedly good. That a place so steeped in cured-meat culture could produce a knockout vegetarian sandwich with just cheese, zucchini, and eggplant—roasted and oiled to just the point where each vegetable snaps when you bite into it—should be a point of pride.

If this were a perfect world, Garlic Gulch would have flourished, but our frontier town's geography and demographics didn't allow it. Fortunately, Da Pino is a window into an alternate-universe Seattle where Garlic Gulch thrived, a place where anyone can wander in and get brilliant, handmade food for around 10 bucks. recommended