Superb Italian bistro cuisinejust 15 minutes from downtown Seattle.

"You can't be a food snob and live in Seattle," says Alexa Palmer, the proprietor of the pink 1920s clapboard house known as Gene's Ristorante. Even more can you not be a food snob and live in South Seattleor Renton, which is where Gene's is located. Fortunately, Palmer isn't the pretentious type; so while she encourages chef Charles Maddrey to be innovative and exciting, she keeps pepperoni pizza and spaghetti with meatballs on the menu. "If someone wants noodles and sauce, we just make sure it's damn good noodles and sauce," says Maddrey. "We'll always have the chicken cannelloni and ice tea for Fred and Gladys," adds Palmer, nursing a tall glass of the stuff herself. "Fred and Gladys are our bread and butter." BUT A FEW WEEKS ago at Gene's spring wine dinner, there wasn't a red sauce or a chicken breast in sight. Instead, Maddrey and Palmer presented a special menu of rich, Italian heritage and creative springtime flavors that showcased the pair's reverence for tradition and their alliance with the creative edge. The four-course dinner began with a subtle, creamy asparagus bisque with melted leeks and fennel paired with a 2001 St. Supery sauvignon blanc from California. As Palmer a "working owner" often found waiting tablesroamed the room greeting friends and filling glasses, she could be overheard telling her guests that the first wine of the evening tasted a bit like citrus fruit mixed with cat piss. So much for subtletyand snobbery. Palmer is one of those restaurateurs whose personal comfort and sense of humor make you feel immediately at home. Along with her wine supplier, Kris Patten, Palmer's cheeky jokes and casual style commanded almost as much attention as the food did that night. Almost. After the bisque, Maddrey's crew served thin, delicate carpaccio of delicious tuna and striped bass dressed with tangy arugula, a touch of lemon, and rich olive oil. The pasta course presented handmade saffron tagliatelle with locally grown sweet green peas, thick chunks of prosciutto, and a relatively light cream sauce, paired with a 1999 San Rocco Ripasso, a vaguely spicy, fruit-heavy red. The pasta course was topped only by the last: caramelized baby lamb chops with potato gnocchi surrounded by a rosemary-mint reduction. Maddrey's lamb chops were as tender as they were savory, while the handmade gnocchi had an unusual crisp outer layer that gave way to a delicious soft center. The only item served that night that also appears on the regular menu, Maddrey's gnocchi are called "dreamy" in the everyday listings and the descriptor is not a stretch. For dessert, crepes filled with mascarpone cheese were drizzled with a basil-moscato syrup. An uncharacteristic flavor for a dessert, the basil, made sweeter and more pungent by the fragrant muscat grapes, lent a minty, licorice tang to the sweet, double-cream Italian cheese. A barely sweet Marcarini moscato d'Asti was the perfect companion. With the old-world presentation of a formal Italian meal, Palmer and Patten's between-course banter, and the kitchen's attention to homemade details, the evening hardly seemed to belong in Renton. GENE'S HAS BEEN called "geographically challenged" by at least one city foodie, but adjusting to a slightly less-than- metropolitan location has been just one of Palmer's hurdles. A third-generation Seattleite who grew up in the Mount Baker area, Palmer was working as a sales rep for Food Services of America when one of her clients, the previous owner of Gene's, began tempting her with ideas of a career change. Though she couldn't see herself as a restaurant owner when the hints first started, she eventually came around and bought the placeright before 9/11. With the economy in trouble and Renton's leading employer laying off workers left and right, Palmer wasn't at all sure that she had done the right thing. But after heisting Maddrey from his post at Caf頃ampagne, she and her chef persevered. Palmer's father does the bookkeeping, her mother gives English lessons to the mostly Mexican kitchen crew, and the waitstaff have all been educated as to the finer points of Italian cheeses and the nuances of a good pinot noir. These days, the upstairs party room frequently is rented to Boeing employees hosting farewell parties; around the corner, the Renton Community IKEA Performing Arts Center is set to open in mid-June; and both owner and chef now favor local farmers and specialty suppliers over the more mass-market services of Palmer's former employerso Gene's, and Renton, have definitely weathered some changes. While Palmer still makes nervous jokes about jumping into the deep end headfirst, we'd say she's doing just fine. And with a list of delicious, suburb-friendly pizzas and pastas balancing the veal piccata and its accompanying pancetta-beet risotto, we'd say Renton is doing just fine, too.

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