There are 64 Taco Times in and around Seattle. I know this because they're listed in the Yellow Pages, under the name "Taco Time." When the Mexi-Fry honchos decide to open a new slapdash burrito citadel, they don't focus-group names like "Señor Pinto" or "Enchiladas Etc." They just order up another Taco Time sign.
RIONE XIII 401 15th Ave. E., 838-2878, ethanstowellrestaurants.com/rionexiii. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 5-11 p.m. Mon.-Sun.
This is not fashionable practice in high-end restaurant circles. Culinary dilettantes are mildly forgiving of secondary Vegas or Hong Kong locations, but the notion that the dinner for which you just plunked down $150 is readily available elsewhere is a serious buzzkill in a culture that celebrates originality. So chefs with multiple restaurants tend to play up the differences among them, handing out unique names with the confidence of Adam. Sometimes, though, the restaurants in an upscale chainlet aren't as dissimilar as their nomenclature implies.
Ethan Stowell's newest restaurant, Rione XIII, is named for a trendy section of Rome, but it might as well have been named for the Seattle street on which it sits. Stowell's portfolio is rapidly becoming a blur: Tavolàta is much like Anchovies & Olives, which isn't that different from How to Cook a Wolf, which has plenty in common with Staple & Fancy. That's not a swipe at Stowell, whose restaurants are reliable sources of thoughtful, seasonal, and adept cooking. But unlike Tom Douglas, Seattle's other resident restaurant baron, Stowell— who's deeply attached to a highly specific vision of "new Italian," as his 2010 cookbook termed it—has extended only a clammy handshake toward themed cuisine. While Douglas' kitchens turn out Greek kebabs and German pretzels, Stowell's kitchens serve beet salad and spaghetti with anchovies.
Naturally, Rione XIII feels more Stowellian than Roman, which means its arrival is a much bigger deal for Capitol Hill residents than for folks who already have a Stowell outlet close to home. Although the restaurant's sufficiently lovely to warrant 15th Avenue East's unbridled excitement, eaters who pass older Stowell restaurants on their way to dinner at Rione XIII may be perplexed by all the fuss.
According to a Rione bartender, neighbors account for more than half the restaurant's perpetually thick traffic. The most desirable reservations are snatched up weeks in advance, although diners who turn up early can vie for a seat at the bar, which faces a curtain of interior latticed windows that the restaurant shares with Heather Earnhardt's newly opened Wandering Goose. Opposite the bar, black-leather bench seating lines a soaring brick wall. Following the same shotgun format as Staple & Fancy, a row of two-person booths serves as the room's dividing line. Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the floors are polished concrete, and pendant lights are hung in bunches from exposed rafters.
The menu has a familiar ring, too, although it's adorned with Roman touches, including a section devoted to pizza. When in Rome, pizzas aren't treated with tomato sauce, so what Rione XIII calls a "Roman street pizza" is what most Americans would call flatbread. Roughly the shape of a Roman soldier's sandal, the slightly puffed-up pizza is attractively landscaped with bronzed bubbles of dough, but its undercarriage is pallid. Toppings are deliberately scanty, so the dough's bland, dry chew is doubly difficult to ignore. I much preferred a well-oiled pizza with a dainty layer of translucent potato discs to a parched pie stingily garnished with mushrooms, strong roasted garlic, and squares of shaved pecorino, although it was hard to taste past the salty anchovies dotting the potato preparation.
Still, the rustic pies have the advantage of being safely sophisticated (other preset topping collections feature squash blossoms and manila clams), tidy, and easily shareable, which makes them great first-date food. Match.com account holders would do well to bookmark Rione XIII's reservations page: Stowell likes his music lively, and the cocktails are straightforwardly correct.
A Negroni or Apparent Sour may be a better bet here than wine, depending on your familiarity with Italian varietals. The list is a great read, but asking staffers for help deciphering it is like seeking travel advice from someone who's watched a Rick Steves show about the region. When we asked our capable server to describe the three wines from Puglia, she quickly recruited a more knowledgeable co-worker who sold us on an aglianico that was supposed to be firm and full-bodied. There was nothing wrong with the wine he poured, but it was light-bodied and soft.
Among the regionalisms at Rione XIII is a mozzarella menu. Diners struggling to cope with the semi-nude pizzas can order a $25 plateful of smoked mozzarella, burrata, buffalo mozzarella, and fresh mozzarella, which our server described as "a lot of cheese." While the cheese has an appealing tang, it doesn't have the stretchy milkiness that distinguishes the best examples of homemade mozz.
Other small disappointments at the front end of the meal included a mixed green salad clobbered with salt and the phenomenally popular fried artichokes, which tasted like nothing or garlic, depending on how much aioli had been applied. Yet the misses are mostly eclipsed by more successful starters.
A treviso salad probably shouldn't be attempted by anyone finicky about bitterness, but radicchio fans will fall for the crisp, purplish-red leaves, tossed with chile and topped with a mound of snowy white Parmesan. Perhaps the finest dish anywhere on the menu is a pan of braised tripe, fleshy and clean, commingled with fat white beans. While trippa alla Romano is often a slop of tomato sauce, the staccato of mint is at least as important to Rione XIII's superlative version of the rich stew as its brisk tomato trundle bed.
The tripe raised expectations for an entrée order of veal sweetbreads, but here the offal was texturally askew. Served with a lemon caper sauce and artichoke wedges, the buxom sweetbreads were all curves and no corners. Much better were a sharp chicken cacciatore and a wonderfully tender rib-eye.
Many diners will likely make a meal of pasta, an established Stowell specialty. There are six varieties, including an assertive bucatini amatriciana and a too-bright fettucini carciofi that recalls dishwashing detergent. There are also a pair of grails for pasta devotees: cacio e pepe and carbonara, two sauces sought and scrutinized as energetically as burgers and barbecue. Both preparations are too heavy, too murky, and too salty, although cacio e pepe partisans are bound to be sadder. The simple dish ought to feature sheep's cheese suspended in mid-melt and a peppery warmth, not a muck of acidic oil.
Still, Rione XIII's brawny noodles are quite good. Stowell's noodles are always good. But I hope the next time I encounter them, it's in a restaurant which pushes Stowell's brand into territory he hasn't already claimed.
Potato pizza $14
Fried artichoke $9
Treviso salad $11
Trippa alla Romana $12
Cacio e pepe $14