A cafe where bread is worth a pilgrimage

Meet Giuseppe and his pals, Olivetta, Casera and Ciabatta. They run with a crowd that has been loafing around for more than a dozen years in a charming, European-style cafe on First Avenue in Belltown, and more recently in a similarly Old World haunt on Queen Anne.

If you frequent either neighborhood, surely you've met this crusty bunch already; they are among the superb breads sold at Leslie Mackie's Macrina Bakery & Café.

On weekends and at high noon on weekdays, the cluster of customers waiting for a table waxes and wanes. With just 23 seats in the Belltown store (which offers full table service), and somewhat fewer at Queen Anne (where there's an abbreviated menu and counter service only), timing is everything.

In Belltown, where new sliding windows add fresh air to the ambiance, those willing to wait sign in and summon their patience; others eyeball the packed room and opt for take-out. Turnover is pretty quick, thanks to a staff cognizant of the queue and a simple bill of fare — primarily soups, salads, sandwiches and savory tarts — that varies from day to day.

Instinctively, as you sit within view of the profusion of sumptuous loaves stacked on the bakery shelves, you veer toward anything made with dough. That's a smart move.

A mini panini, on a buttered olive-and-herb-flecked bun no bigger than a fist, combines the sweetness of roasted pear with the bite of gorgonzola and arugula. The "demi-baguette sandwich" is basically ham and cheese. But the ham is sweet and pink, the cheese a soft fontina, the greens organic, the mustard Dijon and the torpedo-shaped roll is a dense, chewy sourdough ficelle.

"Crostoni" are jumbo crostini, sort of open-faced sandwiches. The grilled slabs of bread come with assorted toppings that change from day to day and, at $4.50 for a choice of two slices served with a green salad, it's a steal of a meal.

Recent crostoni paired yellow squash with green olives and roasted apples with hazelnuts — the fruit and nuts being the more dynamic duo, especially with a drizzle of balsamic to give the flavors a boost. Curls of manchego cheese embellished each but were a little stiff: Either manchego doesn't melt gracefully or the cheese was on its way to congealing again by the time it got to the table.

Pizzettas, or little pizzas, are built on bread dough, too, and topped as temptingly as the crostoni. A vibrant caponata made with red peppers, pine nuts, capers and sun-dried tomatoes flavored one version bearing shredded chicken breast under a blanket of mozzarella.

Savory galettes are similarly constructed but with flaky pie-crust dough.

Unforgettable is the word for the one topped with asparagus and herb-dusted wedges of fresh roasted Roma tomatoes anchored in a base of ricotta and chevre.

Mackie, thrice nominated for a James Beard Award as the country's best pastry chef, opened Macrina in 1993. Before setting up shop, she embarked on what she calls "a bread pilgrimage" to Italy, visiting artisan bakers all over the boot. It accounts for the strong Italian accent running through the cafe's repertoire.

The soup du jour might be a vegetable laden Tuscan bean (in need of salt) or a perfectly balanced potage of roasted tomato and fennel. Pesto-tossed orrechiette is crunchy with cucumber, red onion and red pepper but very salty. An exotic couscous, riddled with golden raisins and green olives and fragrant with cumin and cinnamon, could have come straight from a Sicilian kitchen.

Brunch feels distinctly more American, if only because of its tendency toward excess. Voluptuously stacked brioche French toast is heaped with fresh strawberries. The "pastry starter basket" included four super-size sweets, among them a daunting (though delicious) boulder-size chunk of chocolate cranberry bundt cake with fudge frosting.

Egg dishes come with herbed, oven-roasted potato wedges, a bouquet of greens and thick slices of grilled bread. The fried egg and cheese sandwich falters under an avalanche of tomato sauce that saturates even thick slices of grilled rustic bread. But a recent special of perfectly scrambled eggs with tiny morels and bright green asparagus tucked among their slippery folds was nothing less than glorious.

Faced by the opulent pastry display the minute you walk in the door, you can hardly resist taking some when you leave. After too many calories consumed in the line of duty, I offer this advice: Bypass the over-baked cupcakes and the dry Danish; rather, hone in on anything that looks like it might grace a pastry case in Rome: a mini lattice-topped pear and almond pie; a slice of lemon tart topped with blueberries; or delicate jam-filled mezzaluna cookies. And don't forget Giuseppe and the rest of the gang.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Sample Menu

Soup du jour $3.25 cup/$4.50 bowl

Demi Baguette Sandwich $8.50

Pizzetta $9.50

Meze Plate (includes galette slice, couscous salad and crostoni) $9.50

Side of coffee cake $3.25

Counter service only is available at the Macrina Bakery & Caf on Queen Anne Hill. Two customers enjoy the outdoor seating. (KEVIN P. CASEY / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Macrina Bakery & Caf 3 stars

2408 First Ave., Seattle; 206-448-4032

615 W. McGraw St.; 206-283-5900 www.macrinabakery.com



Reservations: not accepted.

Hours: (Belltown) 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 8 a.m.- 6 p.m. Sundays; lunch service 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; brunch service 9 a.m.- 3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; (Queen Anne) 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 8 a.m.- 6 p.m. Sundays (counter service only).

Prices: $3.25-$10.

Drinks: Short, oft-changing wine and beer menu, organic coffee and teas, plus many other nonalcoholic options.

Parking: On street.

Sound: Moderate.

Who should go: Those seeking refuge from a plugged-in, fast-food world.

Beer and wine / credit cards: V, MC / no obstacles to access