Pesto Change-o

A transfusion of smarts and passion elevates a fading Eastside icon.

"Just pick a cuisine and perfect it." That was my ornery note to myself on Spazzo Mediterranean Grill after visiting the Bellevue restaurant for the first time this past summer. Spazzo's pan-Med concept appealed to me in theory. In practice, the place produced a mixed-up m鬡nge of Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish. Middling execution turned high-concept tapas into bar snacks and transformed age-old culinary traditions into a half-baked tasting tour lacking focus and depth. Following my initial experience there, I stormed into the Weekly office, penned a vitriolic review, and closed the book on Spazzo. But that angry review never ran, because before it did, Schwartz Brothers, the firm that owns Spazzo (and a number of other high-profile restaurants), announced some significant changes. First move: new talent in the executive chef position. Julie Hawkinson, formerly of Brasa, was to be their golden girl. Second move: The pan-Med concept fell by the wayside, and Spazzo Italian Grill was born. The rest followed logically: lower lighting, an elegant wine bar where the tapas bar once stood, and a balanced, compact menu exuding knowledge ofand love forthe single cuisine that Schwartz Brothers had picked and aimed to perfect. Gratified that the heads of a major local chain had somehow read my mind, I returned to Spazzo recently with high hopes and a serious appetite. As a purebred Italian eatery, Spazzo is sleeker, smarter, and classier. Usually filled with a fashionable, chatty Eastside crowd, the restaurant never really needed the added busyness of the tapas bar; a new air of calm suffused the place as we entered, noting scores of wine bottles behind glass. The bottles aren't just for show; Hawkinson found the upgraded wine selection fundamental in designing her opening menu. "We have some higher-end wines, and now we have some higher-end dishes to complement that," she said in a recent interview. "When you have almost 200 bottles of wine, you can write a great menu." Hawkinson's longtime interest in Italian fare also played a huge role in menu development. "A lot of my influence in writing that menu to open with was all about the seasons. Italian food is kind of the three S's: the seasonality, the sensibility, and the simplicity." When asked about the pan-Med touches that remainin such dishes as risotto avgolemono ($16.95) and lamb stew with Tunisian spices ($18.95)Hawkinson was ready with a quick, painless history lesson. "The ancient Romans went and conquered Greece and brought back egg lemon, and they went to North Africa and had their way there and brought back Tunisian spices," she informed me. "You know, you have to remember one thing about the Italians: They traveled farther than anybody in early times. A lot of their influence, culinarily, comes from other places." The chef's erudition is on full display in her lovely autumn menu, but so is her well-honed instinct for blending elegance and familiarity. This is a menu, after all, that encompasses butter-braised lobster ($39.95) and spaghetti with house-made meatballs ($15.95) without feeling inaccessible or condescending. Our meal began with an eye-catching beef tenderloin carpaccio ($9.95) and a winter white salad ($6.95) consisting of endive, watercress, and romaine dressed with champagne vinaigrette and topped with Point Reyes blue cheese. While the carpacciowith its white truffle oil, capers, and fresh herbswas the more ambitious of the two small plates, it was the unassuming salad that stole our hearts. The smooth, understated tang of the cheese melded effortlessly with the greens' light mix of flavors. After one dish of salad, we craved another, but by this point, our entr饳 had arrived. Full disclosure: I am a promiscuous eater of gnocchi. After sampling the tiny potato pillows at Macchiavelli, Nonna Maria, Mama Melina, and many other local Italian eateries, I know a thing or two about that which is fluffy, tender, and cloudlike, and I can tell you this: Spazzo's gnocchi dissolve on the tongue. Since they literally sport the chef's signaturethe menu lists them as "Chef Julie's Gnocchi" ($14.95)I asked Hawkinson what makes her version superlative. "You can't work too much flour into [the dough]," she responded. "The more flour you're working with, the more dumplinglike they become, and chewy. And that's what separates these from other gnocchi." I would recommend ordering them at Spazzo with a simple tomato sauce, as I did, eschewing the menu's suggestion of smoked pork and Parmigiano-Reggiano. A rich, full-bodied sauce accentuates the ineffable softness and soothing, mild taste of great gnocchi; you can still add the cheese if you like, but first try it the purist's way. And while you're chewing, thank your lucky stars for the bloodless culinary coup that brought Julie Hawkinson to Spazzo.

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