On a Tuesday evening in the West Seattle Junction, the bartender at Itto's Tapas began making a cocktail called the Foggy Ras ($13). She joyfully employed a small hand-held smoke gun to fill a glass bottle with apple-wood smoke. In a crystal mixing glass, she stirred together rye, Aperol, Rabarbaro Zucca (an Italian amaro made with rhubarb), and pink pepper bitters. She then added the concoction to the smoke-filled bottle and capped it. As she swirled the bottle around, she chatted with two customers at the bar, explaining what went into Itto's house-made chorizo and rhapsodizing about the deliciousness of the chicken tagine with preserved lemon.
After a few moments, she uncorked the bottle to pour the drink. Through whispers of smoke, the amber-colored liquid—spicy, sweet, earthy, and with a pleasant bitter edge—tumbled out into a glass and pooled around one large ice cube. Finally, from some corner of the crowded bar filled with various tinctures, bitters, and baskets of citrus fruits and fresh ginger root, she produced a tiny strainer filled with the North African spice mix ras el hanout and finished the drink with a fragrant dusting.
When, on my first visit to Itto's, my husband ordered the Foggy Ras, I raised my eyebrow at him from across the table. (I am against most cocktails that have more than three ingredients, and certainly nearly every drink that involves gimmicks like a smoke gun.) As our server, a knowledgeable straight shooter, walked away, my husband looked at me and shrugged. "She made it sound so good," he explained.
And so it is at Itto's, a charming neighborhood spot where, while the small plates of flavorful Moroccan- and Spanish-influenced fare may be a little hit or miss, you'll find yourself happily going along with things and ordering another round of food and drinks anyway.
Itto's, open since November 2015, is owned by Khalid Agour, a longtime West Seattle resident who also owns Capitol Hill's stalwart Toscana Pizzeria. Agour, a native of Kenitra, Morocco, says that even after running a pizza restaurant for 16 years, he has "always had an itch to bring the food and culture that [he] was raised with to Seattle."
The restaurant is named after Agour's mother, Itto, a mother of six whose home cooking and hospitality are woven into both the menu and the physical space. By coincidence, Agour opened Itto's on the one-year anniversary of his mother's passing. "It was one of the saddest and most joyous days I could have experienced," he said.
Itto's menu is steeped in classic Moroccan flavors. Harissa—a complex paste made from roasted red peppers, chilies, and spices such as cumin and caraway—abounds, as does chermoula, a pungent, herbaceous sauce made with garlic, cilantro, and parsley. Nearly every dish, each of them meticulously plated, arrives festooned with a cluster of peppery microgreens and drizzled with a crimson oil infused with smoked paprika.
Baby octopuses ($8) are braised in red wine until their flesh becomes soft and slippery, with just a hint of delicate chew. It's a saucy dish—four tiny sea creatures bathing in the dark, musky braising liquid that's brightened by a bit of garlicky chermoula. A potato cake called maakouda ($4)—crispy on the outside, dense with pillowy cumin-spiced potatoes on the inside—is simple and terrific. It's served with a red harissa-spiked aioli, as well as one flavored with lemon and garlic. Stewed white beans—creamy and soothing—are the perfect counterpoint to slices of piquant merguez sausage ($8), gamy lamb seasoned with cumin, paprika, and fennel.
Lamb and cumin come together again—brilliantly—in the lamb brochette ($5), another straightforward dish that shines. Tender chunks of spice-rubbed lamb are threaded onto skewers and served with an eggplant puree. The puree is humble-looking but tastes luxurious on the tongue—bright and acidic, silky and rich. (Itto's menu is filled with very reasonably priced small plates, but at $5, this one is an especially good value.)
The tapas menu is lengthy, and not all dishes are successful. Xerez de zetas ($6)—a mixture of oyster, shiitake, and cremini mushrooms sautéed with rosemary—were pleasantly earthy and woody. But they were doused with too much sherry and not cooked long enough, so the mushrooms were soggy and flaccid, saturated with acrid liquid.
A dish of rice cooked in squid ink is somewhat disingenuously called Spanish black paella ($12). While it was indeed black and studded with squid, octopus, tiny scallops, and a head-on prawn, it lacked the flavor of a good seafood stock and any trace of socarrat, the layer of crispy rice that forms at the bottom of true paella. It was served in a mini paella pan, but the dish was cold, indicating that the rice had been reheated separately then slapped into the pan solely for presentation.
A recent special of linguica sausage and house-made chorizo ($9) had tasty elements, but the disparate flavors didn't come together cohesively. Balls of fresh chorizo—smoky, if a bit sweet—were balanced on slices of cured linguica, which were set atop pools of a potent Dijon aioli that clashed with the meats. The plating was lovingly thought out but overwrought, including diagonal slices of cornichon, pickled pipara pepper, microgreens, chili oil, and a dousing of smoked paprika.
The menu at Itto's, which includes daily specials, is overseen by chef Daniel Perez. According to Agour, Perez has experience with Spanish-style tapas. "Together we fused our unique backgrounds to create our ongoing rotating menu," he said. The cocktail menu, created by general manager Devrim Ozkan and bartender Phineas Fennell, aims to do the same with drinks like the Foggy Ras, as well as a sweet-and-spicy tequila-based drink called the Jaliscorissa, made with house-made ginger beer, harissa, and a candied pickled pipara.
I appreciate that the people at Itto's are trying new things, but sometimes the purposeful fusing feels a bit heavy-handed, as though they are trying too hard. At the same time, the convivial atmosphere—particularly in the 21-and-over bar area, which always seems to be filled with neighborhood regulars—makes it clear that, even in their earnestness, Agour and his staff don't take themselves too seriously.
"I wanted [to bring] something unique and personal to the table," Agour said. Judging by the questions diners are often asking staff—"Can you tell me about this Moroccan Syrah?" "What do you think of the chicken tagine?" "What's chermoula?" "Why is this soooo good?"—he's done just that. While the menu holds a few ups and downs, Itto's is marked most by a generosity of spirit, one that Agour's mother would surely be proud of.
"We may be small, but we are large with heart," he told me. Indeed.