Sometimes Italian cooking, more than any other kind of ethnic food, suffers under the weight of crushing expectations. Burritos, for instance, can be both fantastic food-snob treasures and silly, disposable gut fillers. But for whatever reason—I personally blame the movies, with their huge gangster banquets that provide viewers with a welcome dose of humanity amid all the violence—people expect Italian food to be pure magic every time. It should be filling, garlicky yet still subtle, not too expensive, and it should somehow leave the diner spent, giddy, and a better person for eating it.
Sorrentino is about as Italian as you can get in Seattle. A small Sicilian woman micromanages the place, often kicking the chef out of his own kitchen to cook the particularly tetchy dishes. On certain nights, an accordion player goes from table to table, squeezing his little stories of love and heartbreak. It is, in a word, authentic.
Authentic regional Italian food can cause problems for the uninitiated. First: There's no garlic anywhere. This can be surprising in a dish like the lasagna verde ($13.50), which, when compared to the lasagna of commercials and general-interest cookbooks, seems like a small, flat, bland square of cheese and pasta. Never mind that the cheese is high quality and the pasta is homemade, supported with béchamel and Bolognese—the lasagna is downright subtle, and that's surprising, and possibly even disappointing if you're expecting a steroidal pool of ricotta and red sauce.
The spaghetti tarantina ($10.50) is a similar situation: It's a bowl filled with homemade spaghetti and mussels. Salty and tossed with olive oil, it's a perfect Italian dish, but it might be too deceptively simple to impress the way that it really should.
The real knockout here is the house specialty, the couscous con pesce e aragosta ($30). Forget spongy boxed couscous, this homemade (!) couscous is fabulous: Each grain of pasta is its own tiny little ecosystem of delicious, and a generous mound of it is covered by a spicy red sauce, adorned with shrimp and topped with a perfectly cooked lobster tail. It's a meal so good that you want to serenade it with sexy Dean Martin songs.
There are elements of Sorrentino, though, that aren't so much subtle as just plain unexceptional. It's unfortunate that they bill themselves as a pizzeria, because the pizza carciofini ($10.50) is kind of disastrous. The crust is bland and the tomato sauce could use quite a bit more flavor. The mozzarella cheese, again, is impeccable, as are the whole black olives, but the artichokes are dull wet lumps and pancetta is spread over the whole thing in flavorless, transparent slices, when hunks of meat would be better.
Pizza isn't Sorrentino's only misfire: The Caesar salad ($7.50) is coated with less of a dressing than a paste and, though the brisk anchovy flavor leaves no doubt that it's homemade, it also creates an unbelievably dry salad. The house's Sicilian appetizer, the caponata ($9), is basically a plate of caramelized eggplant, and it tastes as fresh and potent as a fried dish could hope to taste, but it's lacking the kick that a specialty appetizer deserves.
Sorrentino's service is perfect. Eager waiters and waitresses come to the table exactly as often as they should, and their accented inquiries (a waiter brandishing a ridiculously long grinder flirted with my dining companion by raising his eyebrow and saying: "Pepper, lady?") are nothing less than charming.
Equally charming are the desserts: a cannoli ($6.50) that's got just the right amount of savory ricotta to balance the sweet shell and powdered sugar, and a creamy, rummy tiramisu ($6.95) that's textured like an expertly made mousse. Finally, Sorrentino makes its own zesty limoncello, which can and should be enjoyed without accompaniment, in shot glasses ($6), before venturing into the more adventurous drinks. The Limontini ($7.50), made from the limoncello, vanilla vodka, and pomegranate juice, is a hyphen-tini that can be enjoyed on its own merits: It's dangerously as refreshing as a fresh-squeezed juice, and twice as delicious.