SUCH IS THE turbulent nature of the restaurant biz that the joint here described is in the shell of another one I reviewed just a few months back. I haven't even taken the review of that one, Iron Gate Cafe, off my desktop yet. My prediction is that Villa Paradiso will live longer. Villa Paradiso
2220 Queen Anne Ave N, 285-7949
Sun, Tues-Thurs 5pm-10pm; Fri-Sat 5pm-10:30pm; Sun brunch 10am-2pm
AE, MC, V; full bar The space remains as classy and burnished as it was in its original Pirosmani days: the lower floor of a venerable Craftsman on the crown of Queen Anne. In its second week of business last July, the place was teeming, and it took us only till our appetizers to discover why. Manila clams and Penn Cove mussels in white wine ($12.95) were tender and mild and bathed in their salty sea essence, which we all wanted to slurp up with straws. An insalata mista ($5.95) with organic baby greens was more satisfying than most, owing probably to a nicely thickened balsamic vinaigrette. The star was grilled prawns, big and pink and splayed atop a toss of drizzled greens and a dazzling cannellini bean puree ($11.95). This dish was splendid to look at and sumptuous to eat, the sweet of the puree and tart of the vinaigrette harmonizing beautifully with the savory prawns. As there were six mouths around our table that night, we were able to make quite a deep dent in the dinner menu. Duck ravioli ($17.50) had a rich, dark sauce of Port and dried cherries, dotted with baby beets—very good. Veal cannelloni ($15.95), probably the least distinguished of the dishes, was still solid and fine, and marked by a backboney bechamel. Best of the pastas sampled was vitello ai funghi e pappardelle ($15.95), in which wide strands of the homemade pasta came tangled up with sweet bits of gently cooked veal and musky mushrooms, stroganofflike. This dish was the cause of much swooning and involuntary shrieks of joy as we all plunged forks into one another's plates. Meats turned out to be every bit as grand. A grilled rib-eye ($21.95) was blood-rare as ordered, lushly marbled and moist, aswim in a deep shallot demi-glaze and dressed for evening with an oregano sprig. It came over a bed of carrots, beans, and potato wedges; the one who ordered it tossed out a feeble wish for more starchy counterpoints, but it was between big happy chomps. My lamb chops ($23.95) arrived blush-pink and heartbreakingly delicious, doused in sage butter (goodbye arteries) alongside plump carrot gnocchi (what a cool idea). And tender—our waiter apologized all over herself for forgetting my steak knife; I hadn't missed it. As good as all these dishes were, however, the best was the evening's special fish. I've never had such delectably prepared ahi ($12.95): perfectly moist, sumptuously rich, and served with an array of simple vegetables. After all this success we almost hesitated to order dessert, afraid our luck couldn't possibly hold. It was our lucky night. Standouts included an artful presentation of summer berries, figs, and nectarines, dolloped with cr譥 frae ($6.95), and a chocolate hazelnut torte ($6.95) whose crusty exterior gave way to an impossibly velvety chocolate fest within, all spooned over with a bitter chocolate sauce. This last was intense, suitable only for true chocolate fans, and extraordinary with a jolt of Villa Paradiso's Caffe D'Arte espresso. TWO WEEKS THIS place had been open? We weren't even intending to review that night, two weeks being too tender an age for most kitchens to have got it together yet. But when the sole food complaint in an evening concerns an overabundance of meat on one's plate, it would seem that the kitchen's altogether together. Villa Paradiso, in short, hit the ground running. A few service glitches—notably too staggered a delivery of dishes—we put off not to inattentiveness but to the early crush of customers. The place is the enterprise of Fabrizio Loi, owner/chef of Kirkland's more casual Ristorante Paradiso, and Laura Miller, former front-person for that restaurant and Belltown's Flying Fish. As it turns out, Loi and Miller have suffered a merry-go-round of chefs since the new restaurant opened; Loi's opening prot駩 didn't work out and neither did the guy sent in to replace him. Hmm . . . didn't bode well. We went back a full two months after the first visit to see how chef number three was working out. FIRST QUESTION: WHERE'D the crowd go? This time we had our pick of tables. It didn't take us long, however, to see that appetizers still rule. A caprese salad ($10.50), with perky green and yellow heirloom tomatoes and cool mozzarella glistening with fine oil and balsamic vinegar, was fresh and grand. A bowl of the day's soup, potato ($4.50), was creamy and rich and savory. For entr饳, we sampled the salmon ravioli special ($13.95) and the stuffed chicken breast ($16.95). We gobbled the former, with its silken mushroomy sauce, but longed for more salmon flavor inside the thick handmade raviolis. Ricotta there was, and plenty of it, but where was the salmon? Waved over the pan with an incantation? The chicken was perfect, all golden-crusted and stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella and melting spinach, served in a marsala sauce with vegetables and herby potato discs. It was as we bit into our crowning slice of peach pie ($4.50 ) that the jury came in. Villa Paradiso is a terrific spot altogether worthy of its terrific location. A service caveat remains: Intervals are still too long between the arrival of each diner's dishes, a problem that—owing to the non-crowd on our second visit—is clearly not due to an overtaxed kitchen. We are frankly amazed that menu performance remained as solid as it did one visit to another, given the kitchen's revolving door. That's why I'm hedging my bet a little; who knows what Villa Paradiso could look like next week? Like I said, it's a turbulent business. With occasionally winning results.