Earnest but overstretched service delivers capable Italian fare at this South Lake Union newcomer.
The first time Enrico Ambrosetti descended the travertine steps of the century-old Supply Laundry Building, he could envision its potential. Even amid the dirt and rubble of construction, it conveyed an operatic grandeur that reminded him of the La Scala opera house in Milan. Borrowing from Verdi, he named his new restaurant Osteria Rigoletto.
It opened last October, deep in Amazonia, at the base of a giant brick smokestack in the courtyard of the Stack House apartment complex. The location is not without drawbacks. The restaurant has no street presence; it’s hard to find even when you know where to look. “In the beginning we had many cancellations because people couldn’t find us,” said Ambrosetti, a former Il Fornaio chef who also owns the cafe and bakery La Toscanella on Westlake.
At the same time, in this densely populated urban neighborhood, people are inclined to drop by without a reservation, which makes staffing on a daily basis a crap shoot.
Osteria Rigoletto ★★
420 Pontius Ave. N., Seattle
Hours: lunch menu 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. daily; happy hour menu 3 p.m.-close in the lounge; brunch 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday
Prices: $$/$$$ (lunch $5-$10; dinner appetizers $7-$12, pasta $15-$30; entrees $22-$29)
Drinks: full bar, Italian wines
Service: well-intentioned, sometimes overwhelmed
Parking: on street or nearby garages
Sound: loud when full; quieter at lunch
Who should go: grand setting for private parties or celebratory dinners; also good for a discreet business lunch or a light meal in the lounge
Credit cards: all major
Access: elevator at the side entrance allows access to main dining room, lounge and restrooms
But the venue is striking. Ambrosetti designed the interior, bringing touches of Old World elegance to soften the masonry. Above the main room a railed balcony sits nearly eye level with crystal chandeliers that hang from the ductwork of the cathedral-height ceiling. In the dining area below, brick and tile meet polished wood and soft fabrics. The tables are unclothed, but curtains frame the booths which, like the banquettes, are thickly cushioned. With seating capacity for 175, it’s an ideal event space, but that’s a lot of seats to fill night after night.
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Your best bet for dining amid this splendor, short of booking a private party, is to reserve a table on a weekend night. On my first visit to Rigoletto, a large private event was in full swing, but the restaurant wasn’t closed. They were serving customers in the lower-level lounge, a cozier, low-ceilinged space with an exposed kitchen, a small bar and a mix of seating options.
On a subsequent Thursday night, I found the dining room fully set up for dinner service, but eerily empty. Everyone was eating in the lounge and in a smaller adjacent dining room. The restaurant had expected only 25 covers that night, our server said. Twice as many showed up, more than two inexperienced waiters could effectively handle, even working alongside Ambrosetti, who doesn’t swan around like a lordly padrone. He works hard and misses nothing.
One night we ordered calamari sautéed in tomato broth as an appetizer, but got bruschetta al pomodoro instead. Captivated by the ripe aromas of the basil-streaked tomato concassé piled high on grilled bread, we dug in rather than summon back the busy waiter.
Catching the error later, Ambrosetti asked if we wanted the calamari anyway. It came with more grilled, garlic-rubbed bread, which I happily dredged in the briny tomato broth, enjoying the ripple of hot red pepper and the tender bite of the squid. In the end, neither appetizer showed up on the bill.
Dinner entrees are pricey but substantial. A side plate of lovely roasted vegetables and potatoes accompanies each. Ossobuco, rich and heady with herbs, had been braised so long it was practically a meat sauce. Crisp pancetta bolstered a red wine demi-glace for rack of lamb, cut into two fat chops; one tough and overcooked. Battuta di maiale, two plate-size pork loin chops, pounded thin, breaded and fried, were also a little tough.
Most pastas are ample for two. On the lounge menu, available from 3 p.m. to close, you’ll find some of them scaled down in portion and price. Try the excellent cannelloni stuffed with a nutmeg-spiced mixture of roast chicken, mortadella, spinach and ricotta. Lasagna takes a northern route, through Ambrosetti’s native Piedmont, with a meaty, porcini-enriched ragú and creamy béchamel tucked between the thin sheets of pasta.
Cappellacci, ravioli-like rounds filled with ricotta and butternut squash, came subtly sauced with butter, sage and a distracting touch of tomato, but was a little too al dente around the rims. Saffron risotto with asparagus was slightly undercooked (the grains should be firm but not crunchy) and under-seasoned. We asked for salt. Ambrosetti returned bearing not only a salt cellar but also some grated Parmesan. It needed both.
“If you tell me something is wrong, I’m going to do 300 percent to fix it,” he said later by phone. I found that to be true, but there were missteps every time. Rigoletto has enormous potential, but unless Ambrosetti can clone himself it needs a larger, more professional staff. Comping an appetizer, a glass of wine or a dessert when things go awry will only mollify some of the people, some of the time.
Bruschetta al pomodoro $8
Battuta de maiale $22
Rack of lamb $29
Yet it’s hard to leave disgruntled when they make amends so winningly. At lunch I wanted to take home the little bit of linguine al pesto left on my plate. The waiter returned with a large box, heavy and warm. “I accidentally threw out your linguine,” he confessed, “So we made you a fresh order to go.”