The chef behind Madrona’s Vendemmia brings a similarly comforting Italian menu to West Seattle.
Pastina with butter and cheese was a childhood favorite of mine. The noodles are just a bit larger than couscous. My mother would boil and drain them, holding back a little of the starchy water, then stir in butter and a good amount of grated Parmesan cheese.
Any kind of pasta with butter and cheese still ranks high on my list of preferred comfort foods, but I never thought to put a poached egg in it, as they do with the cavatelli at Raccolto.
Here they cook the tiny, shell-like noodles risotto-style, stirring vigorously to create a rich emulsion of Irish butter, sea-salted pasta water and enough cracked black pepper to leave the lips tingling. The poached egg and Parmigiano-Reggiano are optional add-ins, though, I would argue, essential. The result is pure goodness: soupy, rich and fragrant.
4147 California Ave. S.W., Seattle
Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. daily
Prices: $$$ (starters and small plates $5-$14; pastas and mains $12-$30)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; brief list of Italian and Northwest wines
Service: warm and friendly
Parking: on street
Sound: very loud when full
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles; stairs to second level
“It’s probably the dish that will always stay on the menu,” says Raccolto’s chef/proprietor Brian Clevenger. For something heartier than the cavatelli, try strozzapreti. The short, ropelike “priest-stranglers,” cooked using the same method, are finished with a beefy, mint-brightened Bolognese sauce and crisscrossed with a melting lattice of shredded pecorino.
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Raccolto’s kitchen has a pasta extruder to produce the roughly 40 pounds of fresh noodles daily that go into the half a dozen pasta dishes that are central to the menu. Otherwise, Raccolto closely copies Clevenger’s Madrona restaurant, Vendemmia.
Both names are Italian words for harvest; both menus hew to a similar format. The dozen or so starters and small plates, grouped under the heading “raw, cured, vegetable,” are designed to come out quickly. That gives diners something to nibble at while waiting for the pastas and mains that take longer to prepare.
For openers, consider anything involving seafood. Clevenger sources impeccable fish and shellfish through East Anchor Seafood, the market and raw bar he co-owns with Kayley Turkheimer.
A crudo of pristine hamachi rocked some serious bling in the form of grapefruit, celery leaves and radish rounds. A trio of toasts wore lush, lemony, smoked sockeye rillettes pinned with a pickled red-onion boutonniere. Fennel, snap peas and apple were sweet, crunchy add-ins to a slawlike crab salad bound with crème fraîche and lots of lemon zest; but Dungeness dominated, as it should.
One night, swordfish was among the protein-centered main dishes. The meaty fish, so easily and so often overcooked, was expertly done, grilled first, then oven-finished and sparingly accessorized with roasted fennel, a sprinkling of fennel fronds and a splash of extra virgin olive oil.
A New York steak, also grilled and oven finished, was a lot more gussied up, yet every element harmonized. A well-browned, vigorously salted fat cap edged the medium-rare meat. Marrow enriched the red wine sauce that swirled around the sliced steak, little roasted carrots and Brussels sprout leaves, all cushioned on sweet parsnip puree.
A pork chop mounted on sunchokes and apples looked just as stunning, but the meat was chewy and dry, the sunchokes alternately too mushy or too hard.
Some desserts could use a little more finesse, as well. Selections on my visits included a smooth, sexy chocolate terrine and a pleasant blood-orange semifreddo, but also frumpy profiteroles filled with caramel gelato that couldn’t mask the tough pastry.
Clevenger’s restaurants share a similar clean-lined, natural look. Raccolto’s bi-level space allows for a cozy mezzanine. The ground floor has a small bar in the back across from the kitchen, which is visible behind an L-shaped expanse of maple. (The four seats at one end can be booked once a night, at 6 p.m., for a chef’s table tasting menu.)
About our restaurant reviewsStar ratings: Assigned by Seattle Times restaurant critic Providence Cicero and staff:
★★★ Highly recommended
no stars: Poor
Average price of a dinner entree:
$$$$ — $25 and over
$$$ — $15-$25
$$ — $10-$15
$ — Under $10
The tabletops are maple, too. The matching chairs have metal legs that tend to screech across the concrete floor. Despite sound-absorption panels on the walls, noise reaches uncomfortable levels when the upstairs and downstairs are at capacity. It’s mellower when the mezzanine isn’t being used.
On a busy Saturday night, there was much table-hopping; everyone seemed to know one another. (Clevenger himself calls West Seattle home.) Kids accompanied parents; couples dined with other couples. Family-style feasting is common and encouraged by a personable staff that rolls with whatever customers want.
Like his former boss and mentor, Ethan Stowell, Clevenger has hit on a concept that he’s able to adapt to a neighborhood’s zeitgeist, and he’s opening restaurants fast. Vendemmia turns 2 in May, Raccolto is 4 months old, and already they have new siblings. Contadina (the name means farmer) and the adjacent Contadina Pizzeria opened last week in the erstwhile Kingfish Cafe space on Capitol Hill.
Clevenger expects to cook at each restaurant a couple of nights a week; meanwhile, he’s building a team to back him up. Raccolto’s chef, Jason Brzozowy, spent four years working with Maria Hines at Tilth and Golden Beetle. Vendemmia’s chef, Rock Silva, was previously at RN74. Nelson Whitmore came to Contadina from San Francisco’s Pizzeria Delfina, where Clevenger worked years ago.
The busy chef turns 32 this month. I asked if he is finished with opening restaurants for a while. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t working,” he admits. “I want to work hard now so I don’t have to work too hard later.”
I took that as a “no.”