Chefs Nelson Whitmore and Brian Clevenger.
Chefs Nelson Whitmore and Brian Clevenger.
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The Coaston sisters ran Kingfish Cafe on the corner of 19th and East Roy for decades, then turned the space over to Jason Lajeunesse (of Capitol Hill Block Party) some 18 months ago. He transformed it into a more contemporary neighborhood spot, filled it with Hemingway memorabilia, and called it Ernest Loves Agnes, but after a year or so he must have realized it wasn’t working. So the call went out to a super-busy alum of Ethan Stowell’s culinary organization, a bright young chef named Brian Clevenger, who’d already opened Vendemmia in Madrona and Raccolto in West Seattle. How about another spot? A neighborhood pizzeria and an informal trattoria?

So Clevenger and his resident chef, a San Francisco transplant named Nelson Whitmore, have taken over the space and moved a few things around. The Hemingway paraphernalia is g-gone, the pizza ovens moved to the back, replaced by a bank of burners for a new demonstration kitchen. Double doors close off the passage to the pizzeria half of the restaurant, while the staff seems to have roaming rights between the two sections.

The idea seems to be to keep the pizzeria a “family” place while the restaurant develops a more sophisticated adult vibe. An understandable goal, even though my guess is it won’t work. During the first week, it was awkward at best.

The best of the pastas was without a doubt the cavatelli, which Clevenger prepares to order like a risotto, using a stock of root vegetables to braise the pasta. Tender morsels of boneless rabbit appear in the resulting dish, which is showered with parmesan. You don’t often see cavatelli on local menus; it’s more common to see gnocchi (often made lighter with ricotta). Cavatelli are denser, chewier, with ridges and imperfections that do a better job holding onto rich sauces of game (wild boar) or creamy pesto.

A word about the wine list. It is mercifully short. All too often, budding owners let themselves become dazzled by fancy wines from distributors who smell “sucker” in the varnish of a restaurant’s new countertops. Clevenger has been around the block and knows better. His by-the-glass wine list features Italian bottles from four or five regions that do not include Tuscany. Instead, the stalwart producer Franco Molino from Piedmont is represented with a red (a Nebbiolo) and a white (a little-known variety called Favorita that’s indiginous to Piedmont). A Sicilian blend called Cerasuola di Vittoria makes an appearance, as does a Salice Salentino from Apulia, the heel of the boot. Considering that this wine lists for $45, you have to ask yourself what’s going on.

Anyone remember the days that a salad of beets and goat cheese was part of every restaurant’s menu? Felt like a throwback to Obama’s second term when I spied “Marinated Beets, Ricotta, Hazelnuts” on the starter menu at the pizzeria side of the house. You couldn’t sit down anywhere in town, in that long-gone time,  (not even Canlis, for heaven’s sake) without being offered a plate of beets — red beets, golden beets, yellow beets. Restaurants always have pots of boiling water going, or a hot oven, so boiling or baking (sorry, “roasting”) beets is easy. If you’re going to do this yourself, it’s messier (watch Martha Stewart to see how it’s done). Or just give up and buy canned beets. At any rate, beets pair beautifully with soft cheeses like mozzarella or fresh goat cheese. I’d suggest pickling or marinating the beets as well, so you don’t have to add a ton of dressing. But — note to the kitchen at Contadino — they do require a generous pinch of salt to bring out their sweet, earthy flavors.

Other starters include salads, tuna, salmon and lamb meatballs. Half a dozen pizzas are on the menu: plain mozzarella, anchovy-caper, pepperoni, sausage, taleggio-mushroom, and potato, ranging in price from $14 to $18. And a couple of desserts.

Back on the other side of the house, the appetizer list includes oysters, a chicken liver mousse and a lamb tartare.

So let me conclude with praise for the pizza. You’d think, by now, that we had more than enough pizza to blanket the city in tomato-covered dough. Wrong. We’ve got thin-crust Neapolitan rounds, thick-crust Sicilian squares and a lot of in-between. Wood-fired ovens, gas-fired ovens, electric ovens. Lotsa sauce, minimalist sauce. Traditional toppings, exotic toppings, build-your-own buffets of toppings. Says the menu at Dino’s Tomao Pie, on the other side of the Hill: “More than three toppings will be expensive and won’t be any better.” No such worries at Contadino (the Italian word for farmer). The tomato sauce is rich, thick and sweet. The anchovies have virtually melted into the sauce, which sports a handful of zesty, briny capers. The crust — the real test — has remained crisp.

The trouble with improperly made pizza is usually the temperature of the oven. If it’s too cool, the pizza never cooks properly and the crust remains soggy. If it’s too hot, the first blast of heat melts the toppings, and the liquid seeps into the crust, which is simultaneously burning up on the 800-degree oven floor. The result is that the crust is both soggy and charred. At Contadino, the four-deck Baker’s Pride ovens (two of them) allow for better control. The pizza arrives at tableside with a crispy crust that even survives reheating in a toaster-oven the next morning.

 

Ronald Holden is a restaurant writer for Pacific Publishing whose latest book, “Forking Seattle,” is available on Amazon.