Carrello | ★★½ | Italian | $$-$$$ | Capitol Hill | 622 Broadway E., Seattle; 206-257-5622; carrellorestaurant.com; Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-9:30 p.m.; reservations by phone or online
THE CHEF of one of Seattle’s highest-end restaurants is hawking snacks from a cart on Broadway. Some say vaunted Altura is even better than grander-scale Canlis — and it comes higher priced, at $157 per person versus $135. After eight years buttoned up in chef’s whites behind his marble counter there, Nathan Lockwood looks relaxed and happy pushing a wooden-tray-on-wheels setup around the dining room of his new place, Carrello. Just across the street from Altura, it’s also Italian with a seasonal-Northwest bent — but with antipasti starting at $3 and pastas mostly under $20, it’s a different, way more accessible, very promising world. At the end of service one night, Lockwood hung around at the end of the bar, wearing a T-shirt and drinking a beer while a Jimi Hendrix song played.
“Altura” means “achieving great heights” in Italian. Before he opened his first Seattle restaurant in 2011, Lockwood was chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s Acquerello as it earned its first Michelin star; he also worked at renowned Fleur de Lys there. “Carrello” means, plain and simple, “cart,” and at Carrello, they rove through the room bearing antipasti and small plates from which you may choose, while pasta and entrees are ordered from your server. Lockwood is liking things lower-key. “It’s awesome to be out in the dining room and connect with people,” he says of his new part-time, dim-sum-style role.
It’s also awesome to be seated in the dining room and connect with Carrello’s pork-and-rabbit meatball: perfectly textured, meaty but light, bathing plumply in its little dish of olive-and-onion-y brodo. Five dollars might seem like a lot for a meatball, but not if it’s the best one you’ll ever eat, which this very likely is. Another shockingly excellent thing found rolling around on Carrello’s carts is duck liver mousse, a small and precious dish of it packed with a fearlessly gamy richness — it tastes like the duck lived a full and happy life, drinking a lot of XO Cognac.
But Carrello doesn’t always achieve such heights. Other cart choices make for pleasant, tapas-style nibbling: smoky bites of octopus, a few anchovies described as “boquerones grown up,” beef tartare with a nicely seedy cracker. Letting deep-fried artichokes roam around a room before eating doesn’t do them any favors, however; ditto for the gnocco fritto accompanying some salumi, which ideally arrives fresh, puffy and hot enough to magically melt the fat in the meat just before it meets your mouth.
It’s difficult to overstate my level of excitement at the prospect of access to Lockwood’s pasta on a non-$157 basis. On the second night of Carrello’s existence, I ate multiple kinds, loved them all and commenced raving wildly to anyone who would listen. Maybe most stellar: tagliatelle with cuore di tonno — shavings of cured tuna heart, imparting an ocean-breeze salinity — plus exactly the right amount of Sardinian olive oil, bits of toasty garlic and parsley. Lockwood says he’s been playing with this dish for 20 years, and that it juxtaposes Northern Italian-style pasta — here made with only egg yolks, no whites, and imported flour that “you really taste” — with Southern Italian ingredients to create something that’s “unusual and classic at the same time.”
“We’ll be doing stuff from all over,” Lockwood notes, taking “regional traditions, how different shapes play with different fillings, then twist that a little bit, but always paying attention to where it came from.” Right now, pappardelle — “firm, lively!” my notes enthuse — gets a deeply meaty tripe-and-oxtail ragu with a ping from anchovy-flavored breadcrumbs and a slight spicy heat, but the sauce is so rich and right that it also tastes almost sweet. Agnolotti’s description, “duck, pheasant, pork, butter,” is a poem, the reality even better. Scarpinocc was new to me, apparently from “scarpa,” so shaped like a wooden shoe — pasta, do you never stop giving? I love you so — and Lockwood’s has a not-at-all-shoe-like thinness, matched with autumnal pumpkin, amaretti, hazelnut, quince and mustard oil. Eat this if you possibly can, even if you think you won’t like it; the taste is total pumpkin-spice redemption.
But ravioli with Dungeness crab and rock shrimp had tough edges and a jumbled presentation, with katsuobushi (the fancier version of bonito flakes) on top promising an umami experience that went undelivered. Parsnip gnocchi were built as big as old-school-Italian stuffed shells, ending up overly firm and loaf-like, not much integrated with their wild-boar sauce. With smaller pasta portions — you’re meant to order a few to share — it feels important that each kind is winning.
Carrello’s main dishes come in that large-format “for the table” size — but who’s at your table and how hungry are they? Regardless, they’re to allow up to an hour for the preparation of a Niman Ranch rib-eye. Ours had decent flavor but some unpleasant, unrendered fat, and not much in the way of an exterior crust; for $97, after a long wait, one expects steak greatness. A Mad Hatcher chicken, $41, had gorgeous golden skin and tasted like a good roast chicken should, but why any party would order this instead of four more pastas is a mystery to me. Sides — which, steakhouse-style, cost extra — include garlicky potatoes, fried and further enriched with thick fonduta, and roasted brassicas flavored with more garlic, capers and anchovy, plus not quite enough lemon.
Dessert at Carrello comes on its own cart, and choosing among not-too-sweet crostata, glass cylinders of layered semifreddo, housemade cannoli and more is good fun. But while service is generally genial and knowledgeable, the system here can involve delays; if you don’t want something sweet, being made to wait to refuse is off-putting. At the end of another visit, we got marooned with our chicken carcass for at least 20 long minutes, as the restaurant cleared out along with, apparently, our original server.
Lockwood says he wants Carrello to be “a fun, communal space that revolves around food and has a kind of boisterous vibe.” The décor, though, tends dark-toned and old-world-ish — a suit of armor, dangling garlic, gilt-framed mirrors — with overly bright lighting feeling more out of place than energizing. “The concept is kind of weird,” Lockwood has noted, and the atmosphere, the carts and the oversized entrees do feel odd, still new, not yet completely comfortable with one other. Give it time — so much more awesomeness can come from this. Meanwhile, eat pasta.
Carrello: 622 Broadway E., Seattle; 206-257-5622; carrellorestaurant.com; Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-9:30 p.m.
Recommended for housemade fresh pasta with seasonal ingredients (such as stellar tagliatelle with cuore di tonno, scarpinocc with pumpkin, duck-and-pheasant-and-pork agnolotti and pappardelle with lamb-and-beef ragu) and a variety of Italian snacks brought around on carts, dim-sum-style
Reservations by phone or online
Prices: $$-$$$ (snacks from the carts $3-$9; vegetables $11-$15; pastas $16-$21; mains “for the table” $27-$97)
Noise level ranges generally stays moderate
Service is knowledgeable and genial, though with some foibles/lags
Drinks: full bar with some smart takes on classic cocktails ($13-$17); wine list with lots of Italian choices (including $12-$17 by the glass selections like a rich, golden San Lorenzo verdicchio and versatile, pasta-ready reds)
Access: no obstacles, men’s and women’s restrooms