The Bellevue edition of Seattle’s longtime favorite Il Terrazzo Carmine has an almost identical menu and much of the same charm.
Carmine’s, the Bellevue spinoff of Seattle’s long-running Il Terrazzo Carmine, uncannily captures the spirit of the original restaurant, founded in 1984 by the late Carmine Smeraldo.
It didn’t take much more than some pine cones and greenery to dress up this room for the holidays. Snowy tablecloths stretch from the mezzanine through the dining room to the lively lounge. The bar is alabaster marble and so is the counter that embraces the open kitchen. Crystal pendants glint on bronze chandeliers hanging from a low ceiling crisscrossed with reclaimed wood beams. A candle and a full-blown rose ornament each table. Generous windows overlook Bellevue’s Downtown Park, now under renovation. When it’s complete, Carmine’s will enjoy a view from its sheltered terrazzo that its Seattle sibling can only envy.
Servers here routinely ask “Is tonight a celebration?” Very often it is, but whether they are feting a birthday, an anniversary, impending nuptials or a new job, people dress up to dine here. The spring in the step of the purposeful staff, some 50 strong, creates another frisson of excitement. The kitchen ballet, the dining-room relay, even the greeting at the door have become more assured in the three months since Carmine Smeraldo’s widow, Maria, and two sons, Carmine Joseph, 25, (known as CJ) and Philip, 23, opened the doors.
88 102nd Ave. N.E., Bellevue
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; full menu available all day in the lounge; closed Sunday
Prices: $$$$ (lunch soup, salad & antipasti $9-$18, pasta & main dishes $16-$25; dinner soup, salad & antipasti $10-$20; pasta & main dishes $12-$57)
Drinks: full bar; broad wine selection especially strong in Italian and NW wines
Service: gracious, old-school formality
Parking: on-site garage (entrance on Northeast First Street); three-hour complimentary self-parking with validation; valet $5 lunch/$10 dinner
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
“The goodwill and name that our dad created at Il Terrazzo was obviously a huge reason we were even able to open Carmine’s in Bellevue in the first place, so we had hoped to honor and continue some of that spirit in creating the new restaurant,” they wrote in an email.
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To assure continuity in the kitchen, Juan Vega, Il Terrazzo’s executive chef, oversees both restaurants. Day-to-day, executive chef Jin Song, who joined the Il Terrazzo team nearly a year ago after stints at Canlis and Japonessa, heads Carmine’s kitchen. Menus at the two restaurants are identical, except that the Bellevue restaurant has a pizza oven (something Maria has always wanted to do) and all the pasta is made here daily (a trip to Umbria convinced all three fresh pasta was superior to dry).
The pizza is exceptional. I love the tug of the bread-like crust, its puffy, blistered shoulders and the golden char underneath. A sausage pie sported traces of fennel pollen and dollops of ricotta among the crumbled meat and melting pools of mozzarella.
The same house-made fennel sausage amplified the anise undercurrent in a luxurious, pale green vodka and fennel cream sauce for spaghetti di finocchio. The fresh pasta has a somewhat chewier texture than dried. Even lighter sauces cling to its slightly rougher surface. Capellini, very thin spaghetti blackened with squid ink, made a vivid backdrop for superb seafood in a briny, garlicky tomato sauce.
All pastas on the dinner menu come in large or small portions. The smaller capellini di mare contained squid, two jumbo shrimp, three large Mediterranean mussels and several meaty Manila clams, and was more than sufficient as an intermezzo for two. Salads are available in smaller sizes too, but on request, something the menu doesn’t mention, but should. Half a grilled Romaine heart, underdressed but loaded with Gorgonzola, was plenty for one.
A veal rib chop was a little scrawny, however. It lacked the heft you expect in a $57 chop, though it was vigorously seasoned and precisely cooked, which bodes well for the other pricey steaks and chops among the entrees.
A vegetable and a starch accompany all main dishes, an endearing vestige of old-school style. Asparagus on every plate in December suggests no pressing need here to be seasonally correct. The starch is usually pasta or rice. Linguine aglio e olio (with garlic, parsley and olive oil) was a pleasant companion for pan-seared Petrale sole made piccata-style with lemon and capers. Risi e bisi (Arborio rice with peas) escorted not only the veal chop, but also duck. The syrup from fat, sweet Amarena cherries mingled with the duck jus dappling the plump breast (in need of crispier skin) and dainty confit leg.
As a prelude to the main event, try tartaro di manzo, among the more vibrant versions of steak tartare I’ve encountered. Gremolata, frizzled Fresno peppers and pecorino jazz up the roughly diced American wagyu, embedded with a raw quail egg. In another grand starter, gamberoni provenciale, four jumbo shrimp showboat in a butter-rich tomato sauce that contributed to the rapid depletion of a generous basket of Grand Central ciabatta. (Bread is brought to the table when they fill the water glasses, before you even order, and replenished if necessary.)
The audaciously indulgent cream of cauliflower zuppa di cavolo comes gratinéed under a light blanket of Parmesan, giving it a lovely, nutty top note. It’s a mystery why it’s not called “zuppa di cavolfiori” since cavolo means cabbage, but it’s always been thus at Il Terrazzo. “Our father clearly had a rationale for it,” the brothers say. “It is one of those things that may be better left unknown, and as an homage to 33 years of tradition.”
Tiramisu is another homage to long-held tradition. A soggy version only slightly diminished one evening’s postprandial bliss. Babas were a happier denouement, for those who, like me, are partial to desserts that involve brioche, rum, caramel sauce and crunchy bits of pancetta.
The pace is suitably leisurely but service isn’t yet wrinkle free. I love the table crumbers, but one waiter whisked the crumbs onto the floor. Another brought the check with dessert, as if hustling us out the door.
The Smeraldo brothers know what a gamble this 5,000-square-foot, 200-seat undertaking is. Their strategy boils down to sticking to what they are good at. “Il Terrazzo is all we have ever known,” they wrote. “It is interesting to look back on the last five years without our dad and see where we were, where we are now, and where we may be headed. The challenges ahead are big, but I think we are up for them.” I agree.