On a gorgeous late-August night, Enza Sorrentino, her small trim frame wrapped in an apron, took some time-honored advice: She couldn't stand the heat, so she got out of the kitchen.
Never mind that her son Corino Bonjrada's Sicilian-accented restaurant, Mondello, was catering to Magnolia Villagers hungry for something new. Never mind that they'd taken up every one of 40 seats in this small cafe, spilling out onto sidewalk tables well-tended by her younger son, Fabio.
Fresh air was in order, and there was plenty of that to be had street-side, where mamma stood by the curb taking in the evening breeze.
It's easy to imagine the exact same scene — a gorgeous night, beautiful food, a little family tension — unfolding in the Sicilian seaside village Mondello is named for. The restaurant is an offshoot of Belltown's charmingly funky La Vita è Bella Café, where Corino Bonjrada and Giuseppe Forte — childhood friends from Palermo — have been serving pasta and panini to besotted Seattleites since 1999.
Open since July, their second effort resembles an Italian beach house viewed through the prism of Williams-Sonoma. Its (too) small pine tables are matched with straight-back chairs, the kitchen fronted by cabinets painted with the words "pane," "pasta," "caffe" and "farina."
This simple stage set translates into a neighborhood hangout where vino flows freely, children are made to feel welcome, and fresh pasta is a great value and the specialty of the house.
If you're lucky, Fabio's fiancée, Marina, will be waiting tables on your visit, spreading sunshine and laughter as she introduces you to her favorite wines, showing and telling until she finds the perfect bottle to suit your pleasure and pocketbook. You'll find Corino or Giuseppe on hand playing host, duties they also share in Belltown.
Your job is to start with bruschetta miste, if only to determine which of those classic spreads — tomatoes, basil and olive oil; warm mushrooms with balsamico; garlicky artichokes; tomatoey tapenade — is the best. (Good luck!)
Carnivores might opt instead for thin-sliced bresaola, cured beef scattered with arugula and shaved Parmesan then drizzled with fruity olive oil. If it's a blustery evening, you'd do just as well passing around a soup spoon and a restorative bowl of zuppe cipolla — an Italian version of French onion soup.
Sicilian-seafood lovers could begin with polpo affogato ($10.95) — poached baby octopi in a smoky tomato sauce — as homely and shriveled as they are tender and delicious. Calamari ripieni ($12.95) is tender, too, the small bodies stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic, pine nuts and anchovies, flavors that meld into a textural touché! that begs to be spread on a slice of La Panzanella bread.
Seafood also shines in spaghetti alla vongole swimming with clams. And again in a toss of tagliatelle with swordfish, tomatoes and eggplant that's al dente and delicious, though it begs for a few capers and a hit of lemon zest.
I found the occasional disappointment on the dinner menu. Overcooked Gamberoni Mondellana, its prawns curling in a harsh lemon-stoked sauce ($15.95). Vitello saltimbocca ($18.95) that failed utterly to "leap in the mouth" as promised.
Pasta clearly trumps "secondi" (entrees) as the go-to main course, so listen up for specials like gnocchi with pancetta, or ravioli filled with soft fresh ricotta and sprinkled with mint: lovely.
Or order old standbys like the rich, salty spaghetti carbonara, or a hunk of lasagna whose slender pasta layers offer a mild meld of meat sauce tempered with béchamel.
At weekend brunch, the brief weekday lunch menu is bolstered with eggs and crepes. Cadge a counter seat and watch as panini ($6.50-$8.50) are prepped and grilled. Among the many toasty, rosemary-scented panini on offer, I'm partial to the Sinatra with its grilled chicken breast, and to the Fiorello — a vegetarian antipasto plate disguised as a sandwich.
Though it's hard to resist orange zest-infused crepes "prosciutto e funghi": proof positive that you can't be too rich (that béchamel!) or too thin (those tissue-thin slices of prosciutto!).
Less appealing were undercooked eggs resting sunny-side-up on a raft of asparagus. But given all that Mondello has to offer, such transgressions are easy to forgive and forget.
Especially if you end a visit with excellent housemade tiramisu or torta del giorno — the latter a slice of heaven moistened with ricotta and punctuated with chocolate on the "giorno" I sampled it.
And if you find yourself looking forward to the warm chocolate advertised with the parfait di mandorle only to find that it's garnished with berry sauce instead? Do as mamma Enza does: Give a Sicilian shrug knowing that indoors or out, this newcomer offers a breath of fresh air.
Bruschetta Miste $7.50
Insalate Mimosa $6.50
Panini Fellini $6.50
Spaghetti alla Vongole $12.95
Pollo Cacciatora $14.95
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or email@example.com.
More reviews at www.seattletimes.com/restaurants.
2425 33rd Ave. W., Seattle; 206-352-8700, www.mondelloristorante.com
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m., Mondays-Fridays; dinner 5-10 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays; brunch 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays.
Prices: Lunch: starters $4.50-$6.95; salads $5.95-$9.50; pasta/panini $6.50-$8.95;
Dinner: starters/salads $5.50-$12.95, pasta/entrees $9.95-$18.95; brunch starters $4.50-$6.95; salads/pasta/panini $5.95-$9.50; breakfast items $6.95-$8.95; desserts $4.50-$6.
Drinks: an all-Italian wine list (many $30-and-under) and a dozen by-the-glass pours; a small selection of bottled beers, plus two on tap.
Parking: on-street and plentiful.
Who should go:
Magnolia Villagers and nearby neighbors.
Wine, beer / credit cards: AE, MC, V / no smoking / tight tables may hinder wheelchair access.