It took more than a year of reconstruction before The Pioneer Houses, erected in the 1850s, could reopen as San Fermo.
Opening a restaurant is never easy, but the owners of San Fermo cleared historic hurdles in renovating The Pioneer Houses to create an inviting, unpretentious neighborhood Italian restaurant.
Erected in the 1850s, the twin, two-story structures are believed to be Seattle’s oldest, intact residential properties. Thirty years ago, they were relocated from the Chinatown International District to Ballard. Two years ago, restaurateurs Jeff Ofelt and Wade Weigel purchased the property and developed the concept along with restaurant consultant Tim Baker and Scott Shapiro, a co-developer of Melrose Market.
After more than a year of reconstruction, San Fermo opened in May with Baker’s son, Sam West, heading the kitchen.
San Fermo ★★
5341 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; 206-342-1530 or sanfermoseattle.com
Reservations: not accepted; call after 5 p.m. to add your name to the waitlist
Hours: dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m., Sunday market menu noon-9 p.m.; lunch counter Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Prices: $$$ (appetizers, salads, snacks $6-$14, pastas and entrees $16-$28)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; brief Italy-meets-NW wine list
Parking: on street or nearby lots
Sound: varies from moderate to loud
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Amex
Access: steps at front entrance; wheelchair accessible from side patio entrance
The restaurant is named for an Italian monastery where the 25-year-old West has stayed and cooked alongside the monks. In Seattle, he has worked as a sous chef at Oddfellows Café and as a line cook at Staple & Fancy and Anchovies & Olives, experience that shows in the simple, seasonal Italian fare presented here.
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Pasta dishes are especially appealing. There’s a hint of rosemary in the fennel-sweetened Bolognese sauce. Made with pork and veal, the sauce is usually served with saffron spaghetti — unless they run out. All the pasta is made in-house, and the saffron-infused noodles require a longer lead time than most.
Bucatini neri, hollow strands blackened with squid ink, make a vivid backdrop for “frutti di mare.” One night’s seafood catch included sweet Hama Hama clams, tender calamari and a curled leg of braised octopus. That eye-catching appendage proved impossible to chew, but it gave a nice flavor boost to the butter and white wine broth.
Butter, lemon and crab stock converged in a sauce for dainty, round ravioli filled with Dungeness crab. Drizzled with smoked tomato coulis, the dish was as light as the summer breeze that skipped along San Fermo’s narrow side porch, ruffling the ivy cascading down the brick wall of the building next door.
Tables on the porch are the first to fill at this time of year, but the interior is no less inviting. Fresh flowers are everywhere. Lace curtains, whitewashed plank walls and butcher-block surfaces both contemporize and harmonize with the building’s refurbished old bones. A cushioned banquette in the front dining room affords a view of the brick-walled kitchen with its spiral staircase leading to the pasta-prep area above. Cozy booths line the rear dining room, adjacent to a four-seat bar.
From the bar, as an aperitivo, try the San Fermo Spritz, a refreshingly bitter blend of Alessia Vermouth Bianco, Cynar and grapefruit. Pair it with a bowl of marinated olives or almonds, or farinata, a rosemary-flecked chickpea pancake good on its own, better with a schmear of cagliata, smashed fresh cheese curds resembling thickened ricotta, sprinkled with robust extra virgin olive oil.
Salads are another way to start. The Caesar strikes a pleasing balance among lemon, anchovy and cheese. Roasted cherry tomatoes and gorgeous dandelion greens highlighted an appropriately bread-heavy panzanella salad, but several of those toasted croutons were jawbreakers.
For something bolder, turn to the cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crab. Cayenne and smoked paprika spike the breading; Calabrian chilies jolt the accompanying aioli. The crispy little sea creature was cut in two, each half bookending a bundle of frisée sparked with orange segments and sweet-and-sour onions.
Rabbit cacciatore stands out among the larger plates for its flawless execution. This typically rustic dish is elegantly rendered here. Topped with sprigs of fresh chervil, the rabbit’s hindquarters yielded supple meat easily pulled from the bones into a rich, ruddy sauce refined from the braising liquid. A cache of sweet bell peppers, fruity, green Castelvetrano olives and grilled rapini as sharp as mustard greens hid beneath the meat.
Exuberant risotto verde was packed with rapini, fresh peas and arugula. The rice had the proper al dente bite but lacked the correct creaminess. Tender, herb-crusted rack of lamb came with carrots and fennel so undercooked a fork couldn’t pierce them.
A fork had no trouble sinking into chevre cheesecake surrounded by a deep blue sea of blueberry-lemon sauce, or dissecting a flaky square of shortcake paired with mascarpone cream and tart “nectarcots,” a nectarine-apricot hybrid. But my favorite dessert was affogato: Caffe Umbria espresso poured over a scoop of hazelnut gelato from next-door-neighbor D’Ambrosio, served with two terrific lemon-raisin biscotti for dunking.
Open just three months, San Fermo has the potential to compete in a neighborhood not lacking in Italian restaurants. The scope and price of the dinner menu is pitched just right for a spontaneous, casual evening out. Weekday lunches are even more impromptu: counter service offers a limited, varying roster of pastas, salads and sandwiches. I’d like to see more consistency from the kitchen and more focus from the wait staff, but the atmosphere — right down to the mismatched china and the cloth napkins with a crisscrossed knife and fork at each place — does these old houses proud.