The owners of Toscana Pizzeria on Capitol Hill have revamped the space, opening a second rendition of the popular Itto’s Tapas Bar, first in West Seattle.
Last fall, after 18 years on Capitol Hill’s Summit Avenue, Toscana Pizzeria became Itto’s Tapas Bar. Everything about the place is different except the ownership.
Proprietor Khalid Agour says he was “itching for a change.” Born and raised with his five siblings in Kenitra, Morocco, Agour had long wished to bring a taste of that culture to Seattle. The death of his mother, Itto, in 2014, reinforced that desire. “I couldn’t think of a better way to honor my mother’s memory than to bring her recipes, with the help of my brother Aziz and sister Sou, to Seattle,” Agour wrote in an email.
On Nov. 21, 2015, one year to the day after his mother’s death, Agour opened the first Itto’s Tapas Bar in West Seattle. It quickly became a neighborhood favorite. Exactly two years later, Agour unveiled the second Itto’s in the former Toscana location. The two restaurants share an identical menu as well as a meet-me-in-Casablanca vibe.
Morocco and Spain converge on the roster of small-to-medium plates. They are evenly divided between vegetarian dishes and those containing meat or seafood. None are priced higher than $15. Agour’s two siblings oversee the Moroccan preparations. Former Tango chef Daniel Perez contributes the Spanish flair. An arsenal of spices and seasonings enliven the prettily arranged plates of satisfying comfort food. Diners are likely to find their favorites and come back just for those.
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Mine include zaalouk, a smoky, sweet eggplant and tomato spread; maakouda, a crisp-jacketed, pan-fried patty of mashed potato zesty with cumin, ginger and paprika; and khoudra, a savory falafel-like fritter of garbanzo and lima bean. Zaalouk is thickly applied to a pair of baguette toasts. Maakouda comes with two aiolis — one plain, the other fired-up with harissa.
The khoudra is served like a burger, stacked with a slice of tomato and a mound of cabbage slaw on a split round of semolina flatbread spread with cilantro aioli. The bread, called batbout, is made here. It also accompanied the tagine of the day, which was lamb. Batbout made the perfect sponge for the saucy, supple stewed meat fragrant with ras el hanout.
Ras el hanout and other spices even creep into the cocktails here. The many-ingredient drinks may sound convoluted but taste lucid and lively. The “Taza Throb,” for example, combines ginger-infused vodka, Cointreau, pomegranate, lime and cardamom bitters. It’s a brisk, food-friendly refresher ideal for warm evening.
The brief but well-traveled wine list offers choices by the glass from Africa, Europe and South America. On Sundays and Mondays, bottles of wine sell for half price.
A Moroccan red blend of cabernet and grenache made a great match for beef tenderloin grilled on the plancha and served sliced over roasted potatoes, though both meat and potatoes were overburdened with demi-glace and a superfluous splash of truffle oil.
Boquerones on toast went so over-the-top, the marinated white anchovies were lost in a kerfuffle of avocado cream, salmon roe, roasted red pepper and sieved hard-cooked egg white. I much preferred the gambas, whole shrimp simply sautéed with garlic and onion in olive oil.
Dishes come to the table as they are ready. You’d be wise to stagger your order, especially if you are seated at one of the small, round two-tops, lest the table resemble a bumper-car track.
I would skip the mushy rice-stuffed grape leaves, saved from dullness by a topper of goat cheese and roasted red pepper. Harissa aioli gave tortilla Española, the potato-dense Spanish omelet, a much-needed flavor boost. Paella packed plenty of peppery heat along with bay scallops, squid, chorizo, linguica, bell pepper and peas, but the oven-finished dish fails to form anything like the traditional crusty socarrat on the bottom of the pan.
Chicken bastilla — a phyllo pouf filled with ground chicken and almonds — was dry but drizzled with saffron honey and so deliciously perfumed with cinnamon that not a crumb was left on the plate. It could almost have been dessert (think baklava with chicken). Speaking of dessert, if the cornmeal tart with blood orange curd is available, have it.
Itto’s looks nothing like it did in its pizzeria days. The cold cases of soft drinks and the TV screen are gone. It’s a dark, moody-blue cave with fewer than three dozen seats, including eight at the bar. Graceful arched shelves behind the bar display bottles of wine and spirits. Mirrors with distressed gilt frames, filigreed votives flickering on the tables and brass pendant lamps glowing with myriad pinpoints of light give Itto’s an aura of shabby-chic decadence. (The chipped china and food-splattered menus, however, are simply shabby.)
You could fall in love at Itto’s, or further a love affair, or just crush on the handsome waiter, whose azure eyes were almost a match for the cobalt walls. Here’s looking at you, kid.
Itto’s Tapas Bar ★★
601 Summit Ave. E., Capitol Hill
Reservations: not accepted
Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday & Saturday; Happy Hour 4-6 p.m. daily
Prices: $$ (tapas $4-$15)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; local and imported beers; Moroccan, Turkish, South African, Spanish & South American wines
Parking: on street
Sound: moderate to loud
Credit cards: Visa/MasterCard
Access: no obstacles