Same As It Ever Was

Filiberto's has been doing Neapolitan cuisine right since long before the trend hit.

In my thrift-store copy of The Poor Man's Guide to Seattle Area Restaurants (the 1978–1979 edition), the entry for the Neapolitan-inspired Filiberto's Cucina Italiana in Burien includes the line: "The menu is extensive and includes many regionl [sic] Italian dishes not found elsewhere in the area." Oh, what a difference 25 years makes. I'm sure we're all a few pounds better—or would that be worse?—for the recent citywide Neapolitan-pizza craze (Via Tribunali on Capitol Hill, Tutta Bella in Columbia City and Wallingford), and these days, regional Italian menus are anything but scarce in Seattle. But family-run Filiberto's, which was in its fourth year when that '78-'79 guide was released, has been serving big plates of Naples-style gnocchi and wood-fired pizzas since long before it was trendy. Before you even get a look at the hundred-odd echt-Italian items on the menu, there are several clues that at Filiberto's, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The entryway is partially covered with fan letters from the last three decades, every table is draped in red-and-white checkered cloth, and framed Ferrari posters decorate the walls. There's a bar tucked into the main dining room, available wines are displayed on a wall of shelves separating the kitchen from tables, and outside, there's even a traditional boccie-ball court. Most of those hundred or so items on the menu have been there since Filomina Perry opened the restaurant with her brother, the restaurant's namesake, and their respective spouses. Perry continues to run Filiberto's with her family and a cast of staff members who have been around so long—none fewer than 15 years—that they seem like family. On our last visit, one such front-of- the-house employee clued us in to the ultrafresh homemade pasta of the evening: spinach fettuccine ($12). Slightly overwhelmed by other possibilities, we made a mental note of it and asked to start with an order of bruschetta ($9) from the antipasto menu. Filiberto's uses fresh buffalo mozzarella on their antipasto items but not on pizzas or in pastas. That evening, the bruschetta consisted of six thick rounds of toasted bread (not made in-house, unfortunately) topped with diced tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. On the side were eight slices of mozzarella di buffalo dusted with dried oregano. The cheese was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, the fruit an off-season treat. Filiberto's doesn't offer much in the way of salad, so we proceeded to the spinach fettuccine with marinara. The austere preparation gave us the opportunity to discover that the noodles tasted garden fresh and that the sauce was wonderfully light, but wonderfully chunky, too. (The leftovers, eaten straight from the take-home tin the next day, were somehow even better, and isn't that how red sauce should be?) We also had bucatini carbonara ($12.95); it was our rich, decadent splurge (or at least that's what we thought until the subject of dessert came up). Bucatini is like spaghetti except it's hollow. Like almost all of Filiberto's pastas, the long, fat, tubelike pasta is house-made. The egg-and-cream carbonara sauce was exceptionally rich and hearty, the bacon—not pancetta, you understand, but bacon—in the sauce was smoky and substantial. Next time, we'll try carbonara's kissing cousin, Amatriciana ($12.95). Made with bacon, onion, tomatoes, and hot peppers, it's a very Neapolitan sauce that traditionally goes hand in hand with bucatini. We didn't necessarily have room for dessert, but the mention of homemade amaretto cheesecake ($5.75) was too tempting to ignore. The stout slice was as light as cheesecake can be, and the best specimen of the stuff in my memory. Tiramisu and spumoni, predictably, are Perry's most popular desserts, but I'd urge you not to overlook her cheesecake. On previous visitsto Filiberto's, I sampled the bold pizzaiola—another very Neapolitan dish, of sliced beef in a thin, garlicky red sauce ($18.95); the voluptuous gnocchi alla Filiberto ($12), whose cream sauce includes mozzarella and Parmesan (the plump pasta ovals are from an old recipe that calls for semolina and potato); the house meatballs (uncommonly moist and all beef, two for $3.50); and several versions of the restaurant's wood-fired pizzas and calzones (about $10–$12). Filiberto's pizza crust is thin yet doughy and becomes perfectly charred, the sauce is lightly sweet and unobtrusive, and the toppings—from anchovies to artichokes—are on the money. As I've not been to Italy, I can compare these pies only to Lombardi's in New York City—and that's one of the highest compliments I know of. Although I've been told it's not by design, Perry's kitchen is all female, while her floor staff is male. I don't think the somewhat slow pace is by design, either; I think it's simply due to the sheer volume of customers, many of whom are regulars. On the other hand, the attentive, gentlemanly service is absolutely by design—a design as old-world as the recipes. Filiberto's Cucina Italiana, 14401 Des Moines Memorial Dr., 206-248-1944, DES MOINES/BURIEN. Lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Tues.–Fri.; dinner 5–9:30 p.m. Tues.–Sat.

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