Napoli collides with Pike-Pine at Via Tribunali.

As soon as we entered Via Tribunali, my date and I started getting the creeps. True, the place is spacially disorienting, very narrow, high, and deep; and it's also about as dark as a restaurant can be and allow patrons to still see to eat. But we've eaten in stranger places; what is it about this one that . . . Oh my God! It's the loading dock where we used to go and get high all those years ago! After more visits, I've gotten to the point where Via Tribunali's intentional atmosphere has come to dominate its inadvertent impact on me. That atmosphere is Italian; no, make that Italian, even Italianissimo. The menu, every blessed word of it, is in Italian; the head cook (pardon me, il pizzaiolo) is Italian, the wood-fired oven is Italian, as many of the staff as humanly possible this far west and north are either Italian or Italophone, and overheard conversations are as likely to be in la bella lingua as not. A mere non-Italian-speaking diner can feel uncomfortable about addressing the busboy without being spoken to first. "It's a pizzeria, for goodness' sake," we tell ourselves, and order pizza: a classic margherita (plain tomato and mozzarella, $9) for the lady, the "Via Tribunali" (ricotta, provolone, buffalo mozzarella, and cherry tomatoes, $14) for me. We reinforce our spirits with powerful martinis ($9) made with cucumber-scented Hendricks gin and sporting the largest green olives I've ever seen in a glass. By the time our pizzas arrive, we are definitely in dolce far niente mode. And here they are! Unsliced (how vulgar of me to ask), to be consumed decorously with fork and knife. We make the first incisions, stab a succulent morsel, and—maybe they should have given us a spoon, too? These pizzas are not done; not at all done. Inside the rim of browned crust the cheese and tomato swim languidly above a properly paper-thin but entirely raw layer of crust. It's yeasty-good even raw, but unquestionably raw. Still daunted by our ethnic inadequacy and thoroughly softened up by our martinis, we choose not to say anything, for fear of being told pityingly that all truly Neapolitan pizza is served semi-raw. But just the same, next day I called a far-traveled friend and inquired about the matter. "No, no, no," he said, almost chortling: "Crust's got to be chewy-crispy all the way, with little burnt spots all across the bottom. You should have raised hell." Oh, yeah? Well, raising hell's something I know how to do. On my second visit, I was loaded for informational bear; I could hardly wait through a big plate of buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto ($10, and if that was Italian prosciutto the good people of Parma must be taking a few tips from the boys at Buddig) and a nice fresh plate of lightly dressed lettuce and arugula ($5) for my pizza quattro stagione ($14) to arrive. Oh, shucks: The pizza toppings are nothing to write home about—mushrooms, tiny salame rounds, more of that dubious prosciutto (shredded this time)—but the classic combo of tomato and mozzarella make the dish shine anyway, even though the properly black-speckled crust was still elastic as silly putty in the center. My companion's lasagna ($13.50) was a knockout, the meat, sauce, cheese, and tissue-paper pasta blending perfectly in every bite. After that, any impulse to raise hell had evaporated, particularly since our waitress exuded Italian charm like a rose garden under a Mediterranean sun. I can't tell you anything about wine at Via Tribunali; no wines by the glass are suggested, and even the cheaper bottles average $35 or $40 (and top out at $150), which seem a little odd considering that pizza is not generally considered to need the vinous support of the Marchese Antinori to yield its best. But no doubt I don't know what I'm talking about; in Napoli they undoubtedly do these things differently. Via Tribunali, 913 E. Pike St., 206-322-9234, CAPITOL HILL 5–10 p.m. Wed.–Sun., closed Mon.–Tues. Reservations only for parties of eight or more.

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