If there’s any cuisine that appeals as easily to kindergarteners as epicureans, it’s Italian.
Your picky mother-in-law. Your aunt from Kansas. Your toddler nephew. They’ll all find something to love at a fine Italian eatery.
In today’s installment of Tourist Tacoma – offering tips on where to take out-of-town guests for dinner – I’m focusing on upscale Italian eateries of South Sound. (Read my last installment about restaurants with beautiful dining rooms – Asado and Indochine).
Lucky us, we have polished Italian restaurants aplenty. You’ll find short tours here of Italian eateries worth a detour for celebrations big or small. But first, let me delve into my most recent favorite: Marzano Italian Restaurant. The Parkland restaurant this year celebrates a quarter century of producing rustic Italian fare brushed with Northwest flavors. Elisa Marzano opened the restaurant in 1988 in a tiny space with a scattering of tables. Marzano’s cooking – influenced by her native Northern Italy – immediately attracted a following that would propel her to grow the restaurant in 1993 to a larger space up the block in a converted home that is steps from Pacific Lutheran University.
Today, head chef Elisa is joined by her son Brian Marzano, who serves as the restaurant’s staff manager, head waiter, wine steward and – as he joked – “anything else that needs to be done.”
The 55-seat eatery exudes effortless elegance; the decor is a mix of rich, earthy tones portioned into small rooms that preserve the original footprint and charm of the old two-bedroom home. Each intimate dining space overflows with visual appeal – a tiny painting, a lit-up chandelier or textured curtain that divides one space from the next.
Because of those small dining rooms, close-set tables can mean the volume of chatter shrinks or expands with the number of diners in the room. Four anonymous visits over five months found dining rooms bustling at capacity on every visit, a testament to the regional popularity of Marzano. Reservations? A must on weekends. Diners who arrive without one may very well be turned away, but always in diplomatic terms, as was my experience. (Service, on every visit, was practiced and polished.)
The menu of pasta and heartier entrees fluctuates with the seasons and sometimes more frequently. Brian Marzano acknowledged that not every diner is a fan of the often-changing menu, which is why a handful of standards remain or reappear as the seasons turn.
I’d return every season for the seafood starters – mussels ($11) on a winter visit and Manila clams ($11) on a summer visit months later. Both arrived in similar white wine broths fortified with butter and cream so tasty, you’ll use the never-ending baskets of house bread to sop it all up. An impressive and vast antipasto selection ($12 and $16) of cured meats and cheeses could be a meal itself – and remained on the menu through every season.
Pizza won’t disappoint the kid or foodie at your table. The style is tricky to categorize – it’s neither thin like Neapolitan nor a thick Sicilian pie. Instead it’s a pan-cooked pizza with bubbled edges and a slightly thick crust that intersected chewy and crisp. A San Marco ($15) was an unusual combination that paired salty prosciutto, capers and pesto with slivers of sweet prawns. Salumi ($15) featured everything there is to love about Italian cured meats, sweetened with a sparkling bright tomato sauce and roasted cherry peppers.
House-made pastas provided real value for the quality and quantity, and all come with a crisp house salad. While spaghetti, orecchiette and sheet pasta are outsourced, most every other pasta is prepared from scratch and extruded in house.
Do try anything with bolognese sauce or the house-made rigatoni. Boscaiola ($18) combined both – thick tubes of rigatoni swelled with the slow-cooked beefiness of the house bolognese, fortified in this dish with rosemary and cream. Lasagna bolognese ($16) was a standard offering through every season, undoubtedly a patron favorite because of the thick, meaty layers of cheese, bolognese and bechamel.
A classic fettuccine alfredo ($13) proved another regular menu item, a tangle of thicker cut noodles with a clingy cream sauce.
A late-spring dish of ravioli al dragoncello ($19) showcased the seasonal playfulness of Elisa Marzano’s pasta. Tiny purses of fresh pasta held ricotta and spring peas tinged with tarragon, the dish deepened for the rainy season with roasted fennel and carrots. On the same menu, papparadelle all’orto ($17) married wide ribbons of black pepper and lemon pasta with a splash of summery walnut pesto and a roasted tomato sauce thickened with mushrooms.
Scallopine ($21) received stellar treatment in Marzano’s hands, orecchiette with a sage-infused cream sauce cradled succulent chicken breast, pounded thin. If you see the wild boar ragu on the menu, be the first in your party to claim it. Cannelloni al cinghiale ($20) with the boar ragu on a winter visit tasted sublime.
Pairing wine with entrees proved an easy task because our servers turned good questions into comfortable recommendations. The three-page wine list changes occasionally, but consistently focuses on Italian reds with a strong showing of Washington and California wines for every budget.
Save room for dessert? You bet. Pastry chef Barbara Pasi’s concoctions hit a perfect sweet stride. If it’s on the dessert tray – offerings change frequently – be sure to get the classic tiramisu ($7.50) or the Swedish cream ($6.50) with a fresh berry topping.
Marzano Italian Restaurant
516 Garfield St.; Parkland, 253-537-4191, dinemarzano.com
Lunch served Tuesdays-Fridays, dinner served Tuesdays-Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Reservations a must.
Four more Italian eateries to try around South Sound
Here are other special-occasion Italian eateries to try. These are capsule reviews of previously reviewed restaurants. Click the links below to read the full review.
601 S. Pine St., Tacoma; 253-383-7000, primogrilltacoma.com
When Primo Grill opened in 1999 off Sixth Avenue, it was just ahead of a period of openings that turned Sixth into Tacoma’s destination for dining and nightlife. Husband-wife owners Charlie McManus and Jacqueline Plattner have created a broadly interpreted Italian and Mediterranean restaurant that is home to a display kitchen and fruitwood-fired oven and grill.
The cuisine might remind you of something out of San Francisco’s North Beach, but the menu also represents a broad swipe of the Mediterranean: Lebanese, Moroccan and Spanish dishes appear on the menu that changes occasionally with truly locally sourced ingredients. Surf-and-turf menu items arrived pleasingly flame licked. Pasta makes up a third of the menu. Primo’s wood-fired pizza is the finest of its style in town: McManus starts his dough from a biga, an Italian version of a French poolish that imparts a tangy complexity to the crust.
Be sure to surf the wine menu for hard-to-find Washington bottles mixed with Italian varietals. Read the full review from January 2013.
Boccata Deli and Market
405 N. Tower Ave., Centralia; 360-736-2404, eatatboccata.com
Downtown Centralia’s Boccata Deli and Market is a sandwich cafe by day and a dinner destination by night when chef-owner Darin Harris dips into farflung Mediterranean territory – Italy, Spain and Greece, grabbing a taste or two from the Eastern Mediterranean and veering into country French.
At dinner, the restaurant offers a whiff of fine dining, but the atmosphere is decidedly funky and casual by design. Try something from the fresh sheet or pizza pies with an ethereal crust with the lightest chewy resistance ($8 small, $12 large, toppings $1-$2 extra). Put poitrine de boeuf aux agrumes ($23), slow cooked brisket in a rich wine sauce, on your must-try list. But note: Dinner is only served Wednesdays-Saturdays. Read the full review from January 2013.
Toscanos Cafe and Wine Bar
437 29th St. NE, Puyallup; 253-864-8600, toscanospuyallup.com
Tom Pantley’s country Italian cooking spans three decades and several restaurants in South Sound, his latest the nearly 10-year-old Toscanos.
The cafe and wine bar is a slice of sophisticated Italian tucked into a Puyallup business park, a warm space set with linen tables with a glorious patio yielding pastoral views of the Puyallup Valley and Mount Rainier. And Toscanos shrinks or expands with your occasion and budget. Try the bolognese spaghetti ($11.95), meaty and rich with a depth found only in a pot that has simmered for hours. The fresh sheet offers specials of the moment not to be missed. A 16-page wine book offers unusual Italian finds, as well as Washington and California varietals that span from affordable to splurge wines. Read the full review from October 2012.
4201 S. Steele St., Tacoma; 253-475-6000, adriaticgrill.com
A linen tablecloth restaurant might not naturally pair with mall dining, but the friendly lilt of the staff and warm-yet-uncomplicated dining room of Tacoma’s Adriatic Grill sets an approachable tone for a wide swath of diners. Crayons and kid menus are doled out alongside house-made bellinis by staffers who carry the cadence of career servers.
The Tacoma Mall restaurant is run by two masterful restaurateurs, Bill and Monique Trudnowski. The restaurant is an homage to Bill’s longtime love of the cuisine of the region surrounding the Adriatic Sea. Try the cioppino ($28), a dish with garlic-tomato punch in a boozy broth with sweet clams, meaty calamari rings, and snappy shrimp. Pasta is for value seekers, with sophisticated presentations and execution that is square. Don’t miss the rigatoni bolognese ($17), a house favorite brimming with garlicky thump and meaty flavor. The wine list is heavy on Washington wines and classic Italian grapes. Read the full review from December 2011.