Local Colors

Assaggio's regional emphasis gives new meaning to 'Italian American.'

"The only thing that's Italian is me and the proscuitto," Assaggio Ristorante owner and host Mauro Golmarvi is fond of saying. "Everything else is local." Well, not everything else, but it's certainly worth noting that roughly one-third of the wines on Assaggio's consistently award-winning wine list (this year marked the seventh consecutive year that Wine Spectator gave the restaurant its Award of Excellence) come from Washington and Oregon grapes, and Golmarvi says he plans to further shape the list until it's a 50-50 split. In Italy—and all of Europe, really—folks eat and drink what's produced in their region. In that tradition, Golmarvi offers not just sangiovese from a region near his boyhood home in Italy but sangiovese from Yakima, too. On a recent visit to Assaggio, Golmarvi and Yakima Cellars' Mark Wysling were hosting a sold-out wine-pairing dinner under the fresco paintings in the newly remodeled semiprivate party room adjacent to where we were sitting, so I chose Wysling's 2001 Red Willow Vineyard Reserve Sangiovese ($42) to share with my table. On an earlier visit, a friend and I had a half bottle of McCrea Cellar's '02 syrah (made from the fruit of four Washington vineyards, $19)—and we liked it so much that we ordered another half bottle. Both wines were excellent with antipasti like grilled polenta with mushrooms (classically executed and attractively dressed with balsamic vinegar, $8.95); caprese salad (made with absolutely the best buffalo mozzarella this side of the boot, $7.95); and eggplant Parmesan (a classic again, though minisized, $8.50). Both wines also went nicely with our main dishes, which included ravioli Cappesante ($15.95): tender sea scallops served in a surprising saffron cream sauce with rich, tangy Parmesan and ricotta ravioli. Washington wines stand up incredibly well to Italian food, but if you're thinking of supporting the local economy by enjoying a big plate of lasagna and a regional red while the sounds of Frank Sinatra blast in the background, you'll be a bit surprised by the relative austerity at Assaggio. "Everyone thought it was a bad idea to open an Italian restaurant with no checkered tablecloths and no spaghetti and meatballs," Golmarvi recalls of Assaggio's beginnings 11 years ago. "But I couldn't do that. This is the only thing that I could do." This thing that Golmarvi does—using the cuisine of central northern Italy (the food he grew up with in the city of Ancona near the Adriatic Sea) with the offerings of Pike Place Market and other area specialty shops—he does with great care, hospitality, and a refreshing simplicity. Golmarvi says it was the Market that first attracted him to Seattle in 1989, and that's still where he starts each and every day. Once the lunch crowds begin filling Assaggio's dining room, Golmarvi's presence is part of the draw; he's the quintessential avuncular but no-nonsense Italian host who will put his arm around a guest as he chides a waiter for not telling her about the specials already. And those specials are usually unpretentious and somewhat familiar—dishes you might make at home if you had the time and skill. In fact, a recent special had a friend remembering the perfectly square dinners she grew up with—the pancetta risotto ($18) reminded her of her mom's white rice, green beans, and pork chops ensemble. Although the meal didn't open new culinary doors or introduce her to new flavors, there's something to be said for comfort food. That night, my wild salmon special ($18) was also comfortably simple and familiar. Chopped garlic and Italian parsley gave just the smallest bite to the amazingly tender grilled fish, while the arugula below it and the roasted baby potatoes on the side provided a nutty, woodsy base. Golmarvi later told me he loves nothing better than straightforward, essential ingredients, and evidence of this arrives with every plate. In a dish like rotini salmone ($14.95), the smoked salmon, sun-dried tomatoes, and thick cream contribute three distinct flavors. Assaggio's kitchen knows no muddy grays. The dishes are bright, almost audible. It's probably this ability to marry but never muddle local and traditional ingredients that got Golmarvi invited to cook at the James Beard House in December, and it's what will always keep the Persian-born Italian American forever an Italian at heart. "In America you can have a 'supreme pizza'—16 toppings on one dough," he says, his laughter and teasing voice conveying the ridiculousness in such a misuse of cheese and tomato sauce. "In Italy, you get more than three and the chef is going to come out and shoot you." Not to worry; with regional ingredients and Italian authenticity, you're more than safe at Assaggio. lcassidy@seattleweekly.com Assaggio Ristorante, 2014 Fourth Ave., 206-441-1399, DOWNTOWN. Lunch 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon.–Fri.; dinner 5–10 p.m. Mon.–Sat.

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