Picolinos in Ballard's Sunset Hill neighborhood, offers various dinning experiences under one roof. This is not just a pizza restaurant; the menu also includes pasta and lunch and dinner specials.
Tom Bailiff has been a CPA for two decades, but he’s always wanted to be in the hospitality business. Truth be told, he’d like to own a hotel, but it takes a lot of coin, he says, to do that.
Yet he must have dropped a bundle building Picolinos, the Italian restaurant he launched just as the economy tanked 18 months ago. He owns the nearly 100-year-old building that spans half a block on Ballard’s Sunset Hill. It was gutted to the bricks and, with the help of local artisans, transformed into an approximation of an Italian country villa.
Archways framed in wrought iron connect a series of gracious rooms trimmed with honey-hued reclaimed wood from ancient trees. Families tend to get seated in the pizzeria, as it’s called, where white tiles frame a wood-fired oven. At the marble counter, former Via Tribunali pizzaiolo Dino Santonicola stretches dough for Picolinos’ excellent Vera Pizza Napoletana.
Adults, smartly dressed, sipping cocktails or chianti, congregate in the lively middle room, where there’s a bar and a baby grand. “The Gallery” beyond is elegantly subdued.
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Wine glasses arrayed on rustic sideboards, tall candles and long white cloths on well-spaced tables contribute mightily to the old-world charm, as do Luciano Busilacchi and Raffaele Calise, the dapper duo who greets and seats the evening’s constant flow of patrons with aplomb that only experience bestows. Their polish rubs off on the rest of the staff.
Calise’s Salute was Seattle’s prototypical Italian trattoria. His most recent venture, Cucina De-Ra, was shorter lived, but its closure last year also liberated Stefano Mazzi, now chef at Picolinos.
Determinedly untrendy, the menu opens with antipasti — fritto misto, carpaccio and mozzarella Caprese among them — followed by several pastas and relatively few “secondi,” but those entrees are augmented at lunch and dinner by specials. Portions are bountiful, be warned.
We had asked to share a salad, and the waiter thoughtfully had the kitchen divide an inspired mingling of lemon-dressed endive, shaved fennel, red onion and parmigiano sweetly studded with chopped dates. I wish he had advised us to share a pasta, too. Better yet, why not offer the option of half-portions?
Ravioli are splendid. Fried sage leaves garnish the intricate wraps of fresh pasta filled with goat cheese and ricotta. Burnished with brown butter, they are so rich the dab of tomato sauce is welcome.
But one encounters occasional lapses. Bitter burnt garlic took some of the joy out of gnocchi alla amatriciana, but I’d give those tender, tomato-sauced dumplings a second chance. Pappardelle suffered from a deluge of sage-kissed cream sauce rich with ground chicken and veal; it looked like soup.
An abundant vegetarian antipasti included olives and roasted peppers, along with grilled and marinated carrots, cippolini and eggplant, all fresh and vibrant, though the eggplant needed a little more softening.
Four petite lamb chops ringed a lovely luncheon salad. Rosemary and char flavored the grilled meat. Tucked among the vinaigrette-tossed radicchio, endive and romaine were pearl onions and raisins. The kitchen forgot the Gorgonzola; its sharpness would have been a fine complement.
Lunch plates are more reasonably sized, with prices accordingly lower. Cioppino alla Genovese ($34 at dinner, $17 as a lunch special) was chockablock with clams, calamari, shrimp and fish in a bright tomato-basil broth with a peppery bite. Eleven dollars seemed a bargain, too, for five jumbo prawns bedded on skillfully made saffron risotto.
Such sumptuousness leaves little desire for dessert, but pastry chef Manny Barquia’s wares are available anytime in the tiny cafe adjacent to the restaurant on the building’s north end. There you’ll find espresso, gelato, pastries, focaccia and soon perhaps wine.
Bailiff is thinking a wine bar might be a nice addition. He’s also contemplating cooking classes during summer on the newly tented and heated back deck, where a second pizza oven resides.
“I’m finally having fun,” he says. His guests are, too. Who knows? Maybe someday he’ll build a second story, add some bedrooms and finally get his hotel.
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