I LIVE ON CAPITOL HILL. WALLINGFORD is as remote and foreign to me as Calcutta or Rangoon. It shimmers on its distant slope, quietly humming with young couples, the silent stealth of their SUVs, and the pleasant clank and clatter of a few dozen cozy restaurants. I go there seldom, once or twice a year at best. Recently I took a friend on this semi-annual trip, and we had dinner at Bizzarro Italian Cafe.
This café seats 40 or so people at small tables beneath an oppressive avalanche of decorative junk. It offers a mish-mash of Italian foods--lasagna, puttanesca, osso buco, marinara this and marinara that--loosely thrown together from all the cuisines of Italy. Bizzarro is no ideologically driven project: they take the simplest pleasures of Italian food and present them in whatever combinations might please the palate and imagination of the chef.
Wallingford is among the purest of Seattle's ethnic neighborhoods. Its people are, like the Dutch, invariably reasonable; they have the carefully modulated wackiness of grad students, and they're well-aware of their civic entitlements and rights. NPR is the lingua franca, so that one can blend in easily with just a day spent listening to this beacon of monoculture. My date and I walked down North 45th Street to Stone Way, and ducked behind the smart shops into the shadows of 46th, where the entrance to the café was marked by a garishly lit clown.
The clown was merely the first note in a symphony of junk, most of it suspended from the café ceiling. This indiscriminate collection hovered above our heads throughout dinner, underscoring if not overstating the café's wacky élan. A Stag's Leap Petite Syrah 1996 ($38) had been chalked onto the specials board and the clown, to our great relief, very quickly faded from view. This arid, billowing dark wine was a terrific starter, and we enjoyed it with a side of Funghi Chini ($6.95), a kind of stuffed mushroom without the cap, featuring minced portabello with heavy doses of garlic and thyme laid over a second, prone portabello and some greens dressed in balsamic vinegar. This earthy melange was nicely boosterized by the wine, becoming sweeter and more meaty when swallowed with a splash of the delightful red. A bowl of shy, inoffensive mussels swimming in a marinara-based broth with a great spill of dried oregano ($6.95) proved to be bland and unremarkable.
Our jolly, opinionated waiter steered us toward the special--gorgonzola and walnut ravioli in a garlic-rosemary cream sauce ($13.95)--and a Rigatoni Margherita ($9.95), while warning us away from the soup ($3.95) which he described (accurately) as "basically a bowl of very good marinara sauce." As on previous visits, the small room was full for most of the two hours we spent dining, a melodious bustle of pairs and foursomes, young and old, all discussing Cokie Roberts or the latest antics of David Sedaris.
The rigatoni margherita was disappointing, the pasta itself as firm and buoyant as a high-priced summer air mattress, rather clotted with cheese and then tossed in a blend of the ubiquitous marinara with chunks of tomato and a great handful of oregano.This shotgun marriage of what was essentially pizza topping and pasta seemed to be the culinary equivalent of the restaurant's décor: throw in a handful of everything and some part is bound to prove interesting. The ravioli were more focused--substantial, chewy pillows infused with the musty rosemary and gorgonzola that made up its filling; the cream sauce was rich and full with garlic and more rosemary, nicely accented with the walnuts. In contrast to the careless melange of the margherita, the ravioli showed restraint and discrimination.
On previous visits the lamb shank ($13.95) and a wonderful stuffed pork tenderloin ($12.95) revealed the same capacity for choosing a few good ingredients and cooking them simply. Combined with the staff's talent for choosing excellent wines--particularly the specials, which almost always include some uncommon wines--this occasional nod toward restraint and moderation can result in exquisite moments. After a mediocre salad with too many pine nuts and too many herbs ($8.95) and a bowl of marinara masquerading as soup, for example, one might stumble across a sudden half-hour spent with a perfectly grilled piece of beef ($12.95) and an earthy cabernet ($28), easily the equal of the hours spent in other more consistent restaurants.
We sopped up the cream sauce with a pale, crumbly soda bread and pushed the half-finished bowl of rigatoni aside. Already full, we drank some orange Muscat ($4.50) for dessert, and agreed to look at the Bananas Foster ($4). It looked enormous--a trough of vanilla ice cream accompanied by a small vat of sliced bananas cooking in a bubbly pool of butter, rum, and brown sugar--and this triggered a bizarre sort of Proustian moment, in which the mask of time was ripped away by the sight of these prone bananas, and I saw all at once the half-buried origins of this evening for me in a sudden, brilliant vision of Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor, Northgate, 1970s, and the overpowering banana split with which I had wrestled, there beneath Farrell's funky décor, so that all at once I recognized in Wallingford, with its softly calibrated charms, the adulthood toward which every North End kid must inevitably grow (as so, therefore, must I). Until that day, I shall remain only an occasional visitor.