Il Terrazzo Carmine, an Italian restaurant in Pioneer Square, was and still is unapologetically old school.
More than two years after his untimely death, Carmine Smeraldo is still a presence at Il Terrazzo Carmine, in part because so much is still done his way at the restaurant he founded in 1984.
A portrait of him hangs near the entrance, where he used to welcome guests, many of them known to him. The nameplate simply says “Boss.” Relaxed and smiling in the picture, he’s sporting a black T-shirt, not the suit and tie he always wore to work.
Carmine was unapologetically old school, and so is Il Terrazzo. Gracious waiters, male and female alike, wear black neckties, and their white jackets are as starched and pressed as the napkins they drape over their wrists to serve. Matching white cloths are layered over tables spaced close enough for conviviality, but far enough apart to assure conversations can’t be overheard, lest any of the power brokers in the room are sealing confidential deals.
No baseball caps in this kitchen. Led by executive chef Juan Vega, who has worked here for 16 years, the line cooks sport muffin-topped toques. One of them presides over a marble bar laden with antipasto assortito, which is a very good way to begin your meal.
One night the assortment included rosy prosciutto, farro salad and vegetables variously roasted, marinated or sautéed: onions brushed with balsamic; spicy rapini with anchovy; sliced eggplant, quartered beets and ribbons of sweet red pepper glistening with olive oil. Each item was prepared just as it should be.
That held true for shrimp bisque and calamari affogati; for risotto and pasta; and for entrees such as ossobuco, sweetbreads and eggplant parmigiana. These are familiar dishes from the Italian restaurant canon, but here they are definitively rendered with care and high-quality ingredients.
The velvety bisque captured the essence of shrimp. Toothsome calamari cavorted in a tomato sauce roused with garlic, capers, cured black olives and hot red pepper. I depleted most of a basket of crusty Grand Central Bakery ciabatta soaking up that red gravy, also the one buttressing eggplant parmigiana. Spaghettini ortolano, a lovely late-summer “greengrocer’s pasta,” wore a lighter cloak of fresh tomatoes, arugula, goat cheese and pine nuts.
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Risotto achieves a proper creamy firmness. It changes daily. I lucked upon a version stocked with meaty lobster mushrooms, capped with two large scallops, decisively seared yet still translucent in the middle.
Marrow melted in the cavity of a big-boned ossobuco. Braised in red wine with rosemary (but a bit too much salt), the nearly 3-inch-thick veal shank yielded to the prodding of a fork and had buttered, parsley-flecked fettuccine for company.
Sage-speckled risotto played sidekick at lunch to fork-tender veal piccata, sauced with just the right ratio of butter, wine, lemon and capers. More creamy rice accompanied crisply sautéed veal sweetbreads. Unlike fussier presentations, these sprawled across the plate. Scattered with crunchy prosciutto and fresh peas, liberally lubed with demi-glace-bolstered pan juices, they were utterly delicious.
Vegetables arrived with entrees, unannounced but welcome — buttered broccolini once, green beans another time. The waiter doled them out, manipulating a fork and spoon in one hand like tongs, a bit of fine-dining dexterity not often practiced these days.
Wines by the glass are poured with equal ceremony from small carafes into Riedel stemware. Important Italian producers whose bottles command three figures dominate the wine list, but there are several affordable options, too.
More retro panache: A silver tray adorned with fresh flowers displays desserts by pastry chef Octavio Cortez. Tempted by the lime tart, I chose a more traditional route: tiramisu heady with rum, brandy and Marsala and pistachio-crusted cannoli. Both exemplary.
Carmine’s widow, Maria Smeraldo, recently made it her task to refresh the dining room, long a model of relaxed formality. The tile floor gleams. Sprigged window coverings billow as if catching a breeze. Floral-patterned pottery, china and cushions on the seats of ladder-back chairs add to the Italian country-villa charm.
The next generation isn’t waiting in the wings. Carmine and Maria’s two sons, Carmine Joseph, 23, and Philip, 21, are active in the business. The family recently launched Intermezzo Carmine, a more casual bar and restaurant around the corner on First Avenue. Is it any wonder the boss is smiling?