La Medusa in Columbia City offers well-presented Sicilian favorites.
For a dozen years La Medusa’s Sicilian siren song has lured those hooked on baccala fritters, anchovy-laced “Grandma’s greens,” eggplant caponata and sardine-rich pasta con le sarde to Columbia City.
The restaurant’s founding mothers, Sherri Serino and Lisa Becklund, were among the new urban pioneers who tilled the soil along a stretch of Rainier Avenue South once nicknamed “Garlic Gulch,” nurturing a food renaissance that has yielded a richly diverse crop of restaurants, bakeries and markets.
Julie Andres has worked at La Medusa almost from the beginning, a budding chef mentored by Serino. In 2003, she and her husband, Evan (a gifted baker who eventually opened Columbia City Bakery), bought the restaurant.
If you haven’t been to La Medusa in years, you must return, not only for those Sicilian favorites but to savor a dining experience that, while still homespun, has become the finely woven product of well-practiced artisans.
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Andres, a smiling sylph with the bearing of a ballerina, roams the front of the house with a watchful eye. Veteran servers, wrapped in waist-to-ankle aprons, are smoothly efficient, however, willing and able to recite every detail of every dish, even the frequently changing specials.
The food has never been better. Top-notch chefs — for a while it was Joe Hook (formerly of Café Juanita); currently it is Gordon Wishard (Lark, Licorous, Vios) and Zach Millican (Artemis and Spinasse) — take their vows of fresh, local, seasonal and house-made seriously.
Look to the printed menu for La Medusa stalwarts such as caponata and pasta con le sarde. The former, a chunky relish blending eggplant, red pepper, olives, capers, raisins and pine nuts, pals happily with panelle, spears of fried chickpea dough so thickly cut that the middles are almost creamy under their golden sheaths.
I can’t imagine you’d get a better version of pasta con le sarde in Palermo itself. Sturdy perciatelli noodles, thick spaghettilike strands with a hollow core, are well suited to wear the heavy mantle of sauce, a gritty, saffron-kissed mash of sardines and breadcrumbs, fennel and pine nuts, olives and raisins.
Consult the chalkboard for more ephemeral fare. Lately, whole chanterelles nestled among beautiful, nearly translucent house-made fettuccine coated with olive oil, garlic and a bit of Parmigiano. Crumbled house-made sausage, sautéed with garlic, fennel and a drop of cream, transformed sturdy rigatoni into a dish of surprising elegance.
Grilled slices of green tomato, steeped in “Snapping Red” Controne peppers and other spices, were served atop paper-thin mats of spicy sopressata. Bitter met sweet in a balsamic-kissed winter salad of Treviso endive and sliced fennel sparked with orange and grapefruit, red onion and apple.
Grilled Lido Farm lamb chops were as carefully cooked as oven-roasted walleye pike. Vivid coral ribbons of musky persimmon coiled among the smoky, cumin-spiced chickpeas and charred rapini that accompanied the meat. The fish, in briny broth lightly flavored with fennel, tomato and saffron, flaunted skin that crackled like cellophane with each bite.
Clove, bay, smoked cherry pepper and lemon mingle in the broth bathing soft shards of milk-braised pork, flavors as flattering to the meat as to the pale Controne beans and astonishingly vibrant Stony Plains celery with it.
La Medusa’s pizzas still achieve a crackerlike fragility. Naturally, the bread basket is full of Columbia City Bakery’s wares, making it well worth the $2.50 surcharge.
Among other upgrades: La Medusa serves cocktails and will soon have a retail wine license. There’s even a wine director, Julia Bandy, who knows just the Marsala you should sip with the don’t-miss dessert: thumb-size pistachio-covered cannoli made fresh daily.
La Medusa’s modest storefront still resembles a Sicilian grandma’s kitchen, with colorful folk art on the walls and tabletops stained glossy malachite green. A velvet curtain shrouding the door contains the chill breeze and conceals the knot of people almost always waiting for a table. There are some cracks in the ceramic floor Serino and Becklund installed themselves a dozen years ago, but nothing else about La Medusa is showing its age.
Providence Cicero: email@example.com