Okay, you never took an Italian course, so no one can blame you if you don't know any Italian words beyond pizza and spaghetti. (Two Zs, two Ts; lots of double consonants in Italian.)
Frappuccino doesn't count; it's a name Starbucks made up to sound Italian for its blended coffee beverage.
But this isn't about Frappuccinos; it's about soppressata, which is one of dozens of regional variations on that Italian standby, salami. At its core, salami is nothing more than a generic word for sausage; a salumeria is a shop that sells cold cuts. Italy being a farming nation, there are vineyards to make wine; fields of grain to make pasta and bread, pastureland for cows; milk to make cheese, and whey to feed pigs; and pigs, well, to make salami.
Soppressata is sometimes spelled with only one P. More important is whether it's soppressata from the south (Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia) or the north (Tuscany, Liguria). The southern version is cured; the northern version simply pressed.
There's also a Spanish version, from the Balearic Islands of Majorca, midway between Algiers and Barcelona. It's called sobrassada, also made from pork bits and pieces, and spiced with paprika. This is the version — fatter, softer, and spicier than the others — that you find on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. And it's what you find on the soppressata pizza at Southpaw, John Sundstrom's cleverly remodeled restaurant on Capitol Hill at 926 12th Ave. If the address seems familiar, you're right; it's the old Lark, right across the street from the Seattle U campus and the site of Sundstrom's first restaurant, now transformed into an informal, counter-service pizzeria.
The Southpaw name could have been a reference to left-handed baseball pitchers; certainly the slices of pizza are as big as a Little League infield. But no, it's the world of boxing. Some ideas that didn't make it: Cauliflower Ear, Fat Lip, Bloody Nose, Swollen Eye, Concussion.
Instead we have the Left Hook (four cheeses), the Uppercut (tomato,basil), the On the Ropes (peppers), the Featherweight (pumpkin, goat cheese) the Champ (romanesco), the Contender (pesto), the Title Fight (mushrooms), and the Ten Count (pancetta).
A whole pizza — enormous — is $22, but that's just the base. You can add meat (anchovies are $3, nduja is $5, red wine oxtail is $6). You can also complement your pie with half a dozen salads, some of which are grown just a couple of blocks away on the roof of the Central Agency Building above Lark. On the beverage side, a couple of local beers on tap, a couple of wines, and (yay!) cocktails on tap: Negroni, Manhattan, even vodka-soda. And when it comes time for dessert, there are salted chocolate chip cookies.
The pizzas are put together in the back; a wood-fired oven is visible at the far end of the building. The problem with most pizza these days, I don't have to tell you, is that they're bland. Mozzarella is probably the least interesting cheese to come out of Italy (except for the really good stuff, made from buffalo milk), and most of the tomato sauce they put on pizza is no better than red goo.
So I was delighted that most of the cheese toppings at Southpaw are more interesting: goat cheese, taleggio, feta. The flour for the pizzas is no ordinary wheat but a custom-milled special blend that's denser and thicker than most pizza crusts. And the meat topping on the by-the-slice special the other night was that complex Calabrian soppressato.
So, with such intensity of flavor, why does the kitchen feel compelled to roll the pizza edges in olive oil and salt? Last month I was complaining about chefs who are too timid with the salt, but here it's the opposite. Getting it “right” is a question of taste, obviously, but the salt level at Southpaw is several notches above the norm. In a cheap place, they over salt because they want to sell more beer. Hardly seems an issue here, so dial it back, please.
Now lest this sound as if I'm picking on Sundstrom personally, the reader should know I'm full of admiration for his talents and tenacity.
A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute who became an award-winner (Best New Chef, Food & Wine in 2003; James Beard Best Chef, Northwest, in 2007), he founded Lark with business partners Kelly Ronan and JM Enos (who is also his wife), then moved the restaurant a couple of blocks west a few years later. In the new location, 952 E. Seneca, he added a cocktail bar upstairs (Bitter & Raw) and a rooftop vegetable garden. He also published a cookbook, Cooking Wild in the Northwest, that highlights his signature small plates. Artist, artisan, philosopher: he's doing far more than most.
NOTE: Couple of weeks ago I described Kathryn Olson, the wine director at L'Oursin, as “a former sales rep for a national importer.” Not so. I had found a Kathryn Olson on LinkedIn who had worked as a sales rep for Deutsch (the importer for Georges Duboeuf), but it was not the person at L'Oursin. My apologies to Ms. Olson for the error.
Ronald Holden's latest book, Forking Seattle, is available from Amazon.