Mon–Thurs 11:30 am–11 pm, Fri 11:30 am–4 am, Sat 8 am–4 am, Sun 8:30 am–11 pm.
Have you ever noticed how some restaurants remain mired in a certain era? The world around them changes, but some eateries remain an emblem of the decade that birthed them. I'm starting a series on these time-warp restaurants—the gastronomic equivalent of VH1 programming.
Like VH1, I thought I'd begin with the '70s, which, thanks to The Last Days of Disco, everybody knows spilled into the first two years of the '80s. I was a little girl then, and the easiest way to make me cry was to tell me, as my brother did repeatedly, that I was destined to marry Aldo Cella, the fictional Italian shill for Cella wine. Aldo was a mustachioed troll, but he got plenty of tail with his bottle of chilled Lambrusco wine and his slick capo style. "Chill a Cella," he'd say to the ladies who cooed his name.
Aldo was a symptom of the era's Italo-mania: smitten with The Godfather, Americans thrilled to all things branded Italian—suggestive Campari ads, bicycle racing à la Breaking Away, and a still tight-assed John Travolta. Forget authenticity, all you had to do was gesture at Italian culture and you were set. Aldo Cella knew this, and so, apparently, did a Pioneer Square restaurant called Trattoria Mitchelli. I wasn't here to taste its food when it opened in 1977, but as far as I can tell, the restaurant remains in a perfect time warp. Aldo Cella might not be around anymore to tell you to drink cold red wine, but Mitchelli's is still serving the dry fluffy bread that passed for Italian before we got wise to great breads like focaccia, ciabatta, and grissini.
At one point, the restaurant may have shot for an ironic Italian exuberance of the "Two Dagos from Texas" sort—some framed Mitchelli's ads from the Rocket suggest so—but now its cluttered walls of Italian posters, tile floors, and sticky oilcloth table covers just seem tired.
I was surprised to learn that Mitchelli's has recently undergone a massive menu overhaul (and a name change, dropping the Trattoria)—because my meals there were absent of most of the fine Italian things that American eaters have discovered in the last 25 years, like rosemary, good olive oil, or a certain simple pride in ingredients. Using flatbread on a panino or serving woefully dry bruschetta ($7.95) can't reverse a fundamentally stodgy menu.
Even happy Aldo would be dismayed at the food coming from Mitchelli's kitchen, which shows the kind of indifference that's not just retrograde, but infuriating. Everything is undersalted. When my Sicilian meatloaf wrap ($7.95) comes with a garnish of raggedy spinach leaves crumpled like old Kleenex, I get huffy. (Why garnish a plate with something disgusting—why not just leave it off?) The anemic fried squid ($7.50) isn't even warm, and it's served with a garlic dipping sauce that tastes days old. An appealing-sounding penne Bolognese ($9.95, light portion) is so overcooked that the retired couple next to me could eat it denture free, should they so choose. Chicken piccata ($9.95, light portion), which I first learned to cook in 1979 from a recipe in my big sister's Seventeen, has the thin burn of wine that someone didn't bother to reduce into a sauce. Mitchelli's knows enough to serve a thin-crust pizza bianco ($9.95), even if it's too leathery to enjoy, but to the kitchen's credit, a chopped salad ($7.50, light portion) isn't bad at all.
The problem is that places like Mitchelli's are the rule, not the exception, in the heart of Pioneer Square, which, if you believe the guidebooks, is the bohemian soul of Seattle. The area is filled with restaurant dinosaurs, which is fine if standards stay high, but it makes me crazy that no really interesting restaurant—other than Café Paloma—has opened there in years. The redevelopment of Pioneer Square in the 1970s helped define Seattle as a vibrant, funky city. Now might be time for a second wave of redevelopment, starting with the food. n