It's been a decade since Lorenzo Cianciusi bought the Italian restaurant Sostanza. And almost as long since I've returned to this Abruzzi, Italy, native's trattoria to see what's cooking. The short answer: interesting specials, memorable pastas and hearty hunks of meat certain to taste even better when the wind blows cold off Lake Washington's Madison Beach-front.
But it's summer now, and on a warm evening you'd do well to cadge a seat on the sidewalk patio — or upstairs on the diminutive second-story deck with a view, adjacent to a small bar. There you might sip a Campari and soda and watch the sun brigade calling it a day, trudging to their cars dragging sandy towels while you relax and peruse the daily specials list.
The standard menu is a modest selection of antipasti and insalata ($6.95-$12.95), pastas ($14.95-$20.95) and meat and seafood entrees ($16.95-$31.95), with average prices skewing a bit higher than the norm for a neighborhood Italian joint.
But on one visit, we ignored the standard menu entirely. Instead, we went for specials like pink sheaths of raw Kobe-style beef carpaccio garnished with capers, Dijon dressing, olive oil and a few thick shavings of Parmigiano.
Next came osso buco, meaty, marrow-filled veal shank classically prepared as a wine-stoked braise, lively with lemon zest. And lovely linguini tutta mare — the housemade pasta simply dressed with a hit of bright marinara and slivers of garlic, that sauce enhancing — not obscuring — the fresh flavors of the precisely cooked shellfish and halibut.
Taking the advice of our waitress, who was opinionated, informed and engaging (a description befitting other servers as well), we enjoyed a bottle of 2001 Felsina chianti ($39), from an Italian-oriented list modest in scope and devoid of vintage dates.
On another evening, the appealing scent of shellfish stock rising from a neighbors' lobster bisque sang its siren's song, imploring us to order a bowl of our own. It, too, was a special that lived up to the name. Not so a third night's "warm grilled octopus with garbanzo bean spread and pesto." The octopus, while tender enough, went wanting for the seared-to-succulence that comes from a properly heated grill.
That not-insurmountable problem dogged other grilled dishes, on various visits, as well. Like the costolette di maiale, an impressively thick and appropriately juicy pork chop on the bone. And bistecca Fiorentina, a substantial 20-ounce porterhouse ($31.95) that, like the pork, profited from a swipe in its Barolo-infused sauce. Both were good enough, but could have been truly wonderful with the carmelized char that comes from artful grilling.
Deliberating between Copper River king salmon (a special) and capesante padella (a house specialty), I chose the latter, sold by the magic words "I love those scallops" uttered by our waiter. I did, too. Sauces, sides and deft searing turned a trio of gargantuan sea scallops into a powerful profusion of color and flavor: scallops resting in pools of roasted-red-pepper coulis and a buttery citrus-scented reduction, sides of crunchy broccoli spears and sautéed eggplant, onion and bell pepper.
But what I loved even more, and envision coming back for again and again, are Cianciusi's pastas. Like that sea-scented tutta mare. And a tantalizing tangle of tagliatelle Abruzzese — ribbons of fresh pasta with a fine dice of sweet onion, pancetta and peppers. And the ridiculously rich and rustic campanella Veneziana, bell-shaped Barilla pasta with ground beef, veal, onion and a wine-enriched demi-glace finished with cream.
I'd pair these with a salad — perhaps the mixed greens with warm, hazelnut-encrusted goat cheese, whose lettuces come lightly laved with sherry vinaigrette. And then finish with something sweet, say, a snifter of Sambuca Romano to complement one of the excellent housemade cakes, like the lemony angel-food or a dense chocolate layer cake perfumed with orange and iced with chocolate ganache.
Ten years since he made the move to Madison Park, chef Cianciusi's neighborhood trattoria is showing its age. It's comfortable and well worn. And I like that. Seated in the dim recesses of his downstairs dining room, watching the room fill up, listening to the volume rise, taking note of a birthday celebration, couples with young children, wine being uncorked and poured, servers chatting amiably with their guests, I'm reminded that it's places like this one — of the neighborhood and for the neighborhood — that make our neighborhoods great.
Kobe-style beef carpaccio $11.95
Insalata misto $6.95
Tagliatelle Abruzzese $16.95
Costolette di maiale $19.95
Capesante padella $20.95
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1927 43rd Ave. E., Seattle;
Web site: www.sostanzaseattle.com
Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays,
5-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Prices: Starters/salads $6.95-$12.95, pasta $14.95-$20.95, entrees $16.95-$31.95, desserts $6.50-$8.
Drinks: Full bar, Italian-oriented wine list.
Parking: On street and good luck!
Sound: Moderate, until the place fills up; quieter upstairs (when it's open) than down.
Who should go: Cozy-trattoria lovers; Mad Park regulars.
Credit cards: AE, DC, MC, V.
Accessibility: Obstacles to second-story bar/dining (stairs).