Festive and favoloso, Tulio tempts as life of the party

To describe Tulio Ristorante, allow me to quote from something I once wrote:

Step through the antique revolving doors into the clubby confines of Tulio Ristorante, the Italian restaurant in the Hotel Vintage Park, and you'll find customers practically hanging from the rafters — quaffing Chianti, feasting on focaccia, lingering over linguine and dishing over dolci. Tulio exhibits many of the qualities you'd expect to find at a neighborhood Italian restaurant. It's noisy. It's festive. The kitchen is in the hands of a talented Italian-American chef, and the place is named for his father. But if you're hoping for spaghetti and meatballs, candles-in-Chianti-bottles and "Volaré" — fuggetaboutit.

I wrote those words nearly a decade ago. And they are no less true today, a testament to executive chef Walter Pisano and to the brass at the Kimpton Hotel Group, who welcomed him back with open arms last fall after he took a brief "hiatus." That impolitic pause encompassed time spent envisioning, executing and later extricating himself from a short-lived post as the man behind the menu at another downtown restaurant with an Italian name.

Pisano is clearly back where he belongs, leading a brigade of chefs, cooks and bakers who knock themselves out over his rustic, seasonally inspired menu: offerings that impressed me more than ever before. That talented kitchen crew is balanced by a staff of service professionals willing and able to help make the most of a meal here, whether you're in for a long lusty lunch or, as was my case on a recent evening, dinner out before a curtain call at a nearby theater.

Bless the waitress whose equanimity in the face of our rush-time needs turned a truncated meal (our fault) into a terrific one. Thanks to her expertise and the kitchen's timing, a friend and I shared an appetizer, salad, entrees and dessert and were out the door — to our delight and dismay — in less than an hour.

That stunning starter, semolina-encrusted sea scallops, was a concert of salt and sweet, with crispy fried capers, Marcona almonds and a drizzle of syrupy vin santo ($12). A creamy coat of Gorgonzola impressed in a toss of frisee and slivered Belgian endive, a superb salad with toasted walnuts and ripe crimson pear.

Though there was nothing light about the "light" tomato sauce found in a rousing dish of orecchiette with Italian sausage, those little pasta ears provided the perfect nook for capturing the rich red stuff — and the heat of its spicy ground meat.

"Thanks, but no thanks," I told our willing waitress, when she offered to de-bone my whole branzino. Dismembering the petite sea bass ($27) was a small price to pay for a fish-fancier who lives for grilled skin and delicate white flesh carefully excavated from head to tail. Adding to my enjoyment was roasted fennel and a saucing of sweet-pepper relish — a bright mix of capers, pine nuts, currants and Picholine olives.

With no time to linger over coffee, we opted for coffee/cinnamon gelato. "Wow!" we cried, over and over, spooning that dreamy dessert from its edible praline bowl before running out the door. I couldn't wait to come back.

Upon my return, I ate tenderly grilled baby squid strewn with chickpeas, tiny bits of lavender sausage and flat-leaf parsley. How I loved that! And the thin-crusted "pizza pancetta" hoisting a single egg, sunny-side up. Too bad that breakfast of champions isn't on the breakfast menu, though pizza Margherita — one of four wood-fired pizze offered at lunch ($10-$12) — is available at weekend brunch.

Burrata, exquisitely creamy mozzarella curds gathered under a thin skin, came paired with colorful heirloom tomatoes. Though this antipasto looked like a Picasso, the tomatoes tasted like forgery, a fault tempered by basil-flavored salt and glorious Umbrian olive oil.

Autumn got its due in cinnamon-scented malfatti — housemade pasta triangles plumped with butternut squash. Garnished with sautéed spinach in a moat of browned butter, this was sweet enough to double as dessert. Not that we were complaining. Nor did we protest when confronted by a towering temple of chocolate defined as panna cotta — but disguised as a silky sensation in a sea of hazelnut praline.

Imagine a roasted chicken breast with garlic and fresh sage tucked under its skin, a deep brown spoonful of drippings draped over perfect lemon risotto. Now picture a gargantuan braised pork shank ($19), a not-so-little piggy bred by a boutique butcher, burnished to a crisp, sprinkled with horseradish gremolata, laid on top of giant corona beans, its meat falling from the bone at the touch of a fork. Got it? I'll never get over it.

Sample menu

Hearts of romaine with anchovy and grana $7

Sweet potato gnocchi $8

Orecchiette with Italian sausage $14

Wood-oven roasted salmon $24

Roasted chicken with lemon risotto $16

Chocolate panna cotta $8

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More reviews at www.seattletimes.com/restaurants.

Chef Walter Pisano is back at the helm of the kitchen at Tulio in Seattle. (RON WURZER)
Tulio Ristorante 3.5 stars

1100 Fifth Ave. (in the Hotel Vintage Park), Seattle; 206-624-5500

Web site:www.tulio.com



Reservations: recommended

Hours: breakfast 7-10 a.m. Mondays-Fridays; brunch 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; bar menu 2:30-11 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and till midnight Saturdays and Sundays.

Prices: breakfast $4.75-$12.95; brunch $4.75-$19; lunch starters $6-$11, entrees $10-$19; dinner starters $6-$12, pastas $12-$15, entrees $16-$32, desserts $6-$8, children's menu $5-$12.

Wine list: a balance of Italian and domestics.

Parking: valet $7.

Sound: loud, but not obnoxiously so.

Who should go: Business lunchers, theatergoers and Italo-philes.

Full bar / all major credit cards / no smoking / no obstacles to access.