In the photo on the wall of brand-new Intermezzo Carmine, Carmine Smeraldo is young and handsome in his white Sheraton Hotel uniform. He's a little blurry—the photo's been blown up to larger than life, which, by all accounts, he himself was, though he stood only five feet five. He grew up in Naples and got a second-grade education, then immigrated to Canada where he scrubbed toilets at a hotel, eventually coming to Seattle and working his way up to open Il Terrazzo Carmine in Pioneer Square in 1984. Il Terrazzo became a bastion of Italian fine dining, and Smeraldo became a Seattle restaurant legend. His 2012 Seattle Times obituary notes that he often greeted customers with a hug, but took the quality of his hospitality extremely seriously; his wife, Maria, said his management style was that of a "brutal, benevolent dictator." The photo of him inside Il Terrazzo Carmine—older and more in focus, still watching over the host stand 30 years later—bears a plaque that just says "Boss."
Smeraldo's wife and two sons run Il Terrazzo now, and opened its sister location, Intermezzo, in June. Chef Juan Vega, who started working for Smeraldo in 1994, is in charge of both kitchens. The original restaurant, hidden in the back of the building behind imposing wood doors, is as expensive as any in town, with entrées running from $26 to $45. Intermezzo, which faces First Avenue with windows that open all across the front, serves craft cocktails and $8 to $20 small plates. "We see it as a portal," Carmine's son CJ Smeraldo said of Intermezzo when it opened, "one that will open our brand up to the next generation of Seattle diners."
If Intermezzo Carmine is a portal to a brand, you might call that brand Beverly Hills chic. There's cream-colored upholstery everywhere, a matching marble-topped bar, and opulent chandeliers in rustic metal cages; the patio has a long, narrow, tabletop gas fire feature. It's upscale, pretty, and standard-issue. Young Carmine seems a little out of place on the wall. "We joke that he looks like Al Pacino," an eminently professional server said last week.
Intermezzo's short wine list skews Italian, and a few of the cocktails contain Italian liqueurs, though there's also a variation on a mojito and a chocolate margarita (añejo tequila, local Brovo chocolate liqueur, and Cointreau, $12). A watermelon salad with arugula ($8) had mild, soft goat cheese and was fine if unsurprising—except for its under-ripe, hard miniature tomatoes, right at the height of the local season. A nice slice of buffalo mozzarella and roasted tomatoes topped a piece of puff pastry ($10); these tomatoes had the flavor that the ones in the salad lacked, but they also leaked juice, making the pastry quickly sodden. Spaghetti nero ($14) was a combination of squid-ink pasta and pieces of smoked salmon, with the pasta cooked well past al dente and broccoli puree hidden underneath it. The mild puree had very little impact, nor did it add to the presentation; the dish wasn't bad, but it didn't offer any contrasts in texture or flavor. A risotto ($14) had tender bits of octopus and a low level of red pepper, and was made with black rice—with the bran hulls still on, black rice is high in nutritional value, and it tastes like it's good for you, unlike the usual creamy risotto indulgence. The food fit the setting. At happy hour, though the bartender was as charming as can be, all three snacks—leaden arancini, wild boar sliders with dry buns, and floppy flatbread overladen with ricotta ($3, $7, $5)—were barely edible.
Across an echoing, empty lobby from its little sister, Il Terrazzo Carmine feels like a private club, its own world of white-coated servers and warmed plates, with its namesake terrace enclosed in the back. If the decor has changed since 1984, you wouldn't know it; its expansive sight lines, ladder-backed chairs, glazed pottery, massive faux candelabra light fixtures, and smooth-jazz soundtrack make it feel like a romantic restaurant you'd see in a TV sitcom of that era. Like its sister, it's generically, perfectly pleasant. One server greeted a white-haired man and his blond companion with a personable inquiry as to whether she'd like her usual: vodka and Diet Coke in a martini glass.
A recommendation for a midrange bottle of Barbera from our server—with an aura of authoritative competence, he was old-school and world-class—was $50, and it was quite good. So was a dish of oyster and chanterelle mushrooms, sautéed with crispy bits of pancetta and shallots and served over a pool of creamy polenta ($10), and so was a crisp Caesar salad ($10) with an unchallenging level of garlic and anchovies blended into the dressing, and so was fettuccine with pesto and two big prawns (small $15), the noodles delicate and al dente, the pesto fresh-tasting. We ordered one of each of these, and our server brought them in three fairly swift courses, the portions already divided in two. He made amiable small talk; it'd been nuts in there, comparatively, before the Seahawks game, and would be again afterward, right when they'd usually be about to close.
Our entrées were only adequate, at stellar prices. Pounded to a half-inch thin, a pork chop ($27) had bits of fresh herbs in its breading and was properly still a little pink in the middle. It was fine, like you'd get at a good neighborhood Italian place; its side of spaghetti marinara looked and tasted as perfunctory as such sides usually do. Veal scaloppine ($29) was flavorful, dotted with lots of capers, but chewy; its side of risotto was rich with cream and cheese, but grainy. A gratis side of a half-dozen dragon's tongue heirloom beans, lightly oiled and grilled but still crunchy, was better than both entrées, and felt like a gift from a time machine set to now.
After we declined the usual-suspects desserts arrayed on a tray, set in front of us on our table in the time-honored way, we finished our wine and the Seahawks game got out. As our server predicted, the place filled up with jersey-wearing fans—Sherman seemed most popular—grabbing a late dinner and drinks, possibly with intoxication already under way. It became suddenly apparent that Il Terrazzo Carmine is the equivalent of a neighborhood Italian place for a stratum of people, those who can afford to just stop in—people who probably have very good seats at the game. It doesn't need to be good enough for a special occasion for the rest of us.