Il Nido | Seattle Times Critic’s Pick | ★★★½ | Italian | $$$ | West Seattle | 2717 61st Ave. S.W., Seattle; 206-466-6265; ilnidoseattle.com; Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.; reservations highly recommended
FOR A LONG TIME, the Alki Homestead served fried-chicken dinners, the old-fashioned, family-style kind with plenty of side dishes plus, of course, biscuits with butter and jam. The décor of that era inside the circa 1904 West Seattle building — a sort of log-cabin manor, constructed of Douglas fir — might best be described as Extreme Grandma, with floral-patterned wall-to-wall carpet, dangly antique lamps and plenty of lace all over the place. Opinions on the quality of the chicken tidily divide into When It Was Really Good, aka the long regime of owner Doris Nelson (and I can personally attest to her bird prowess), and After Doris, i.e., pretty awful. The fire that ended that tragic time a decade ago was started, perhaps poetically, by too many strings of Christmas lights.
When chef Mike Easton first looked at the place a couple of years back, it was all boarded up and derelict, with the rustically grand stone fireplace at its heart a pile of rubble on the floor. James Beard award-nominated Easton is the pasta genius behind Pioneer Square’s tiny, lunch-only Il Corvo, which started out inside a gelato shop, and he was not looking for a space this big. He and his family were just back from a trip to Spain, and he had a tapas bar in mind. But he just couldn’t forget the Alki Homestead.
Now the landmark is home to Il Nido, which means “the nest.” Here, Easton serves an upscale Italian menu centered on more of his vaunted pasta — at more than twice the cost of Il Corvo’s, certain Yelpers would like to indignantly inform you. Still, it’s booked solid: Aspiring diners are setting their alarms for midnight to try to get an online reservation a month away, or showing up early to wait on the front porch in hopes of a spot.
In a new Seattle of silver skyscrapers with restaurants slotted into ground-floor retail space, Il Nido feels like an embrace. This is a restaurant with a front lawn, and Easton’s business partner and wife, Victoria Diaz Easton, takes care of the lush flower beds. Inside, the restoration is impeccable and the décor is restrained — the polar opposite of Doris and company’s reign. On a warm summer night, it’s cool and dim, soothing and sophisticated, the shifting light just right; come winter, the coziness factor of rain against the windows and a roaring fire should be off the charts. Salvaged church pews function as an austere banquette, looking lovely but proving a bit spinally challenging; some other seats have an unfortunate parking lot view. But a sense of not-overly-formal luxury pervades, due in part to Easton’s disinclination to cram in as many tables as possible. He wants every single seat to be a good one.
The Il Nido experience is clearly, categorically different from crowded, counter-service Il Corvo, and the pasta plays at a higher level, too, with special ingredients and labor-intensive methods. If you’re going to pay more, let it be for the handkerchiefs called fazzoletti, strewn with morels and centered with one bright-orange, olive-oil-poached egg yolk — the perfect chew, with the yolk’s richness mixing into a savory broth of butter, olive oil and mushroomy goodness. Or ricotta cavatieddi, each pillowy piece curling in on itself to hold a little more of the lightest, freshest-tasting tomato sauce, every element in its ideal amount: pasta, pomodoro and the lightest dusting of Parmigiano, plus tiny, tender basil leaves.
Nothing is drippy here, no pools of sauce — the food just glistens, barely and beautifully. The super-premium olive oil that makes that happen is Desert Miracle, imported from Morocco by Mehdi Boujrada’s local company Villa Jerada, and Easton’s used it, and known him, for years. A recent salad of the thinnest slices of zucchini and their blossoms practically glowed, with a swipe of snowy ricotta beneath and olive-oil-roasted, garlicky-sweet baby tomatoes on top. If the basil-almond pesto seemed scant, it was hard to think more would’ve been better.
Using the best ingredients makes waste especially painful, and Easton interrogates what goes in the garbage. He started out serving the house-cured lardo with the housemade focaccia, but apparently the smear-your-own-pig-fat format caused cold feet — lots of it was coming back to be thrown away. Solution: Make focaccia ends into olive-oil-soaked, crispy crackers; load each up with an ungodly amount of lardo; sprinkle with pretty edible flowers that don’t stand a chance, flavor-wise; and serve. Even though one is more than enough, you’ll eat another.
Easton also noticed that as Il Nido serves plenty of burrata, a lot of whey was going down the drain. Thus its use in what he calls “a good old-fashioned braise” for legs of rabbit, tenderizing and adding a little tang. It makes sense, then, that the rabbit was nearly buttery, served with its friend the carrot — sweet baby ones, each in the shape of a little heart.
But the Il Nido rib-eye practically defies superlatives: precisely medium-rare, the flesh terrifically soft, the exterior exactingly charred, with salt and smoke ideally evident, the strata of fat lusciously melting. It’s sourced from another longtime Easton purveyor-friend, the Preservation Meat Collective. The secret to its perfection — the rosy meat, the right sear and the rendered fat, all at once — is that Easton’s not always averse to advanced techniques: Before it hits the gas-and-wood grill, the steak is cooked sous vide.
This perfection of the meat-form was served atop fresh lettuces, which wilted unappetizingly under heat, fat and meat-juice. Other oddities happened along the way at Il Nido, too, like a dish of chewy, dry wax beans. One pasta dish — thick, toughish squid-ink conchiglie with a meek broth and strands, no pieces, of Dungeness crab — was uncharacteristically off-balance and uninteresting.
Cocktails, which are the purview of the talented Jermaine Whitehead, worked like fascinating magic one night, especially the Nudo Famoso, a mezcal extrapolation on The Last Word: pale peach in color, both slightly saline and fruity, it was served in a glass so chilled, it was smoking. Another evening, proportions seemed off, with drinks tasting weak or one-note. By-the-glass recommendations from the Italy-leaning wine list were on point — an organic Sicilian rose with a slight natural tang for the beginning of a dinner; an earthy, plummy Il Fauno di Arcanum Tuscan red blend to stand up to the steak — but the wine itself sometimes arrived late. And while service in general seemed congenial, knowledgeable and smooth, one recent dinner protracted beyond unhurried into what-is-actually-happening territory. Still, even with any foibles, feeling lost in time at Il Nido is like finding yourself in some storied European country restaurant, secure in the knowledge that you’re lucky to be here.
At the end of the evening, given the quality of ingredients here, you may want to turn to desserts involving cream — a silky-thick panna cotta with fat blueberries that’d make the world’s best breakfast, a boozy-but-not-mushy tiramisu, an affogato that would also make the world’s best breakfast. Like the egg on top of the fazzoletti and the extraordinary rib-eye, the cream here speaks of happy animals and sunshine.
It’s an equation that has worked for a long time — gorgeous ingredients, classic techniques, connection and caring — plus a singular Seattle space, elegant and historical. Easton’s quick to give credit not just to his purveyors but also to his staff, like chef de cuisine Katie Gallego and grill master Jennifer Metcalf. If you look into Il Nido’s peekaboo kitchen, you’ll see the same spaciousness there that diners enjoy — Easton designed it for room to move, to stretch, to work with pleasure. Usually, right now, the back door is open to the evening sun.
Easton says his philosophy for Il Nido is simple: Pick the best things and then get out of their way.
Il Nido: 2717 61st Ave. S.W., Seattle; 206-466-6265; ilnidoseattle.com; Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Highly recommended for chef Mike Easton’s glorious fresh pasta and highest-quality steak, served in the stylishly rehabbed, historical Alki Homestead; excellent for a special but not overly formal date
Reservations strongly recommended but currently difficult to score (you can also try lining up early or checking in throughout an evening)
Prices: $$$ (appetizers $7-$24; pastas $24-$28; vegetables/salads $11-$14; mains $28-$49)
Noise level ranges from tranquil to convivially moderate
Service is knowledgeable and congenial, albeit with some significant lag times
Drinks: full bar and Italian-leaning wine list
Access: no obstacles, two gender-neutral restrooms