Pasta you betcha

Lower Queen Anne does Italian with verve and an eye on your pocketbook.


530 First N., 378-0273 5:30-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-11:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. DC, MC, V / beer and wine I KNOW, I know: You're feeling the crunch, on a budget for the first time since the last Mr. Bush held office, perhaps unemployed—but you haven't yet had to pawn your extraordinarily discriminating taste buds and you'd like to rub them up against something special from time to time, if it's not too much to ask. Have I got a place for you. The fact that Nonna Maria is located on First and Mercer makes it an even more unlikely find; restaurants with this rare proximity to Seattle Center have generally been able to charge whatever they like. Nonna Maria, by contrast, asks some $12 to $18 for entr饳. That means dinner for two, with salads and modest wine, will probably not top $60. And that, considering the place and the product, might be the deal of the year. The setting is about equal parts old-world and chic, the front room lined with streetside windows and anchored with a deli case, the back more tucked away and evening-worthy. Raw brick and sleek modern fixtures back up to each other without a whisper of contradiction. Of an evening the place is twilit and vibrant with conversation, lending an urban vitality. Make that a global vitality: The restaurant features the pastas and risottos of Italian owner Roberto Davico, the unique culinary chops of Russian-Argentine chef Fernando Grodsinsky, and the overall choreography of Italian-Argentine manager Marco Casasbeaux, whom Seattleites will remember as the genius who gave us the original Cactus in Madison Park. His influence infuses the Italian Nonna Maria with distinctly Latin American style, right down to the salsa on the sound system. Salsa in an Italian restaurant? Believe me, it works. Among Nonna Maria's numerous virtues is the fact that it's a pasta factory, producing pasta so toothsome and presented so flavorfully its verve would be well highlighted by any sexy music. Take the pansoni agli spinaci ($14), a plate of spinach and ricotta ravioli draped in porcini cream and beguilingly presented with a narrow crescent of Parmesan along the edge of the plate. Besides being beautiful, this dish was just insanely delicious, thanks to the textural perfection of the green pasta and the velvety depth of the mushroom sauce. After licking up every last drip of this sauce I wanted to eat the plate. Likewise, a dish of puttanesca ($12) was surely one of the best versions of this classic I've had at any price, featuring strands of good spaghetti sharpened with capers, olives, and anchovies. There was a rare and welcome lightness to this plate alongside its vivid flavors—a feat clearly achieved by a pro. Even the weakest pasta we sampled, spaghetti alla diavola ($14), featured wonderful pasta and an appropriately fiery sauce. Alas, too stinting a hand with the sausages and peppers rendered it an uneventful experience. There are no fewer than six other pastas on the menu; despite this lapse I'll still be back to try them all. ONE FORAY onto the risotto list, surprise surprise, turned up a winner. The risotti alla livornese ($16) made an amply intriguing meal, with clams, mussels, and shrimp swimming about in a winey fish broth enlivened with braised fennel. The texture of the risotto was perfect. Our one foray onto the daily sheet proved equally fruitful. Insalata d'animelle, underpriced at $12, featured grilled sweetbreads over lemony oiled greens. The sweetbreads had been cut to a dice and scattered over the greens, a presentation that to my mind sacrificed some of the inimitable lushness of the meat's texture but was nonetheless really terrific against the lemony greens. Salads were uniformly well handled, from a fine cesare ($6) and bravely peppery mista ($7) to a solid caprese ($6), with buffalo mozzarella and aromatic basil in a beautiful balsamic sea. Off the hot starters list came a clam preparation ($8) in a thickish sauce of bread crumbs, garlic, parsley, and prosciutto; a big-flavored, saline backdrop for the shellfish with shrewd bacon-y complements. Just when we were thinking Nonna Maria could be the best little neighborhood joint in town, however, we detected some weaknesses. A little-of-this, little-of-that cold plate of antipasti ($9.50) was outright boring: Lackluster roasted tomatoes and a drastically underseasoned wedge of artichoke/mushroom frittata were but two of the disappointments. Worse, a plate of veal scallopine ($16) featured oversaut饤 cutlets in a sauce whose best descriptor would be salty. (The rice and spinach beside them, however, were dandy.) Held alongside the overall quality of its pastas, the sexy vitality of its setting, and the relative affordability of its menu, however, Nonna Maria's failings fade as quickly from the memory as the pansoni agli spinaci will from your plate. All in all, it's a solid and appealing little neighborhood performer. What more could a bored little taste bud want?

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