La Medusa

4857 Rainier Ave S (Columbia City), 723-2192. Dinner Tues-Thurs 5-9 pm, Fri-Sat 5-10 pm; closed Sun-Mon.

I have always been sentimental about La Medusa. It is the first restaurant I dined in right after I moved here in the winter of '98, and I've returned often since then. I discovered it a few blocks away from my little rented house while on an evening walk--this modest-looking Sicilian joint in the middle of Columbia City's lone commercial district, just a few doors down from Bob's Quality Meats. (Bob's Quality Meats = My Favorite Bacon; 4861 Rainier Ave S, 725-1221.)

On impulse, I went in, and had a light dinner by myself. Of course I still remember what I had. I always remember what I have. (Two glasses of red wine--Montepulciano, I think. Some amazing baccalà fritters: salt cod purée mixed with creamy mashed potatoes, deep-fried and crispy-gold, with some sort of vivid red-pepper sauce. I didn't really understand salt cod until that night; now it's one of my favorite things.)

A lot has happened since I left the neighborhood. A Starbucks opened. Lots of houses were sold. There was talk of "revitalization," and a couple more restaurants popped up. Salumeria, the kitty-corner cousin of La Medusa (same owners), also opened--aiming to provide the neighborhood with an upscale Italian grocery/deli, which eventually also became a La Medusa-ish dinner spot at night. Salumeria has since closed, and it is still debatable whether Columbia City has actually gentrified or not. (Will we see thriving businesses stick around on that stretch of Rainier Avenue? Will it ever be, as once was predicted, "Capitol Hill South"?)

But La Medusa is still there, thank goodness. There are, however, a few changes to the menu. The baccalà is gone--I so wish it would come back. They used to have buttery egg noodles with sautéed chicken livers, which I absolutely loved. And I'm pretty sure there used to be a pasta dish that involved bottarga--tuna roe, a very Sicilian ingredient. They also used to have an excellent, minimalist spaghetti 'n' meatballs plate: crushed tomatoes, lots of garlic, and enormous, fluffy meatballs. (The new version is now served with delicious sausage, $13, and there's a dish of lamb meatballs, skewered alongside sweet onions and served with aromatic herbs and roasted potatoes, $15.)

The place is still packed with regulars, and still serving authentic Sicilian dishes: Notice the heavy presence of capers and olives, and that anchovies and sardines play important roles here--as do pine nuts, raisins, and lots of lemon. There are bursts of fresh mint in the octopus and fennel salad ($5.50), and even couscous entrées are offered (with tomato broth and chicken or fish, $12/$14)--a true sign of Sicily, the tiny island with a cuisine that packs in strong Arab, African, and Mediterranean influences, along with its own ancient peasant-food roots.

I went to La Medusa a few nights ago after a long absence, and was happy to see old favorites. Eggplant caponata is still brought to the table with bread. You can't go wrong with spaghetti con le sarde (sardines) or linguine with clams (both $13); or thin-crust pizzas with simple toppings ($12-$13--next time I'm getting the one with grilled radicchio, fontina cheese, and pancetta). Nonna's Verde ($6) is a La Medusa trademark, and it's always superb--tender braised escarole in a flavorful broth with olives, pine nuts, and raisins, plus two mini corn muffins perched on top (don't ask, just eat--the corn muffins work, trust me). Creative house antipasti ($9) changes often, but with any luck yours will arrive with a light, creamy wedge of cauliflower gratin, coated in breadcrumbs, or circles of goat cheese dusted with minced herbs.

Spaghetti con tonno ($13) is lovely and purist, tossed with fresh albacore and sweet onions, brightened with capers and lemon zest. (My only complaint is that the tuna can sometimes get too dry... why not poach it in olive oil beforehand?) Halibut (fish special) is flawlessly pan-roasted, and served over pappardelle noodles with bits of bitter greens. And the cassata ($6)--I freaked out over that cassata. La Medusa's take on this classic Sicilian dessert involves sponge cake, rich ricotta, a thin layer of yellow buttercream frosting, and a marzipan foundation. Hello. I'd move back to Columbia City for good marzipan.