Food writers suffer from TNFP syndrome, a condition in which they’re always trying to find “That Newest Fancy Place.” It’s true that I’m occasionally afflicted, although I’ve been going through a detox program lately with a tour of forgotten restaurants.
Call them old-time Italian-American eateries, spaghetti dens, pizza havens or the moniker I think is perfect: red sauce joints.
They’re old Italian restaurants that don’t try to be something they’re not. They don’t use terms like “dairy-infused protein” (cheese) and “sun-kissed grape essence” (wine).
You’ll never find a server wearing a nametag who asks you if you’d like an endless bowl of limp salad.
Red sauce joints are old and proud and unfortunately seem to be on their way to obsolete in South Sound.
My job as the hired gullet for this newspaper is to tell you where it’s worth your time and money to eat. Three South Sound red sauce joints fit that bill and I’d like to keep them in business.
They’re restaurants nominated by readers during my last installment of “Never Been,” my occasional series where I visit restaurants that have operated for at least 15 or 20 years that you might drive by dozens or hundreds of times, yet you’ve never been inside. That’s where I come in.
Take a tour today with me of Pizza Casa in Lakewood, Aversano’s in Sumner, and Bella Nina’s in Tacoma.
12924 Pacific Highway SW, Lakewood; 253-588-8135, pizzacasa.com. Serving dinner only, daily.
When Dan Harris’ family opened Pizza Casa in 1958, that stretch of Lakewood along Pacific Highway Southwest was a major thoroughfare. Tacomans would use Pizza Casa and the neighboring bar as the are-we-there-yet vantage point for arriving home.
Little has changed at Pizza Casa in 55 years other than the adjacent highways, the neighbors and the prices, which Harris said he had to raise to fund a bathroom remodel. The dining room was left untouched at the request of longtime patrons.
The light fixtures are carved out of tin cans, made by one of his brothers who had worked at the restaurant.
There’s still a candy counter adjacent to the host station. Remember those?
In keeping with an era when phone numbers started with letters, the restaurant advertises its number as JU8-8135. That’s 588-8135 for you kids with cellphones.
The menu is pure red sauce joint: spaghetti, meatballs and pizza. Every meal ends with spumoni ice cream. Red checked tablecloths are on the tables, paneling is on the walls, and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin are on the soundtrack.
The recipes are from the families of Harris’ parents, Nello and Kathryn Grassi, founders of Pizza Casa. The most popular menu item is the meat sauce. “It’s my grandmother’s recipe. It dates to Tuscany in the 1800s. She came over here, she didn’t speak any English,” said Harris, who bought the restaurant from his mother in 1995.
“The sauce cooks for eight hours. You let it sit and cure for a few days to develop the flavors. It’s like a stew, it’s better a few days later. It’s not only that, it’s what you put in for ingredients. There are so many things involved with cooking it,” said Harris. “But the recipe’s a secret.”
One secret he did reveal other than the curing process: that aromatic thump in the sauce comes from nutmeg. The keeper of the secret recipe is Earl Jones, the kitchen manager for 15 years. Before that, longtime locals will remember Vic Batanovich, who was chef from around 1959 until 1987.
The menu: Pizza, pasta and a long list of specials. Prices for meals were above market, but they matched the massive portions served in family-size servings. Here’s a tip: Anyone can order from the seniors menu; also look for small versions of some entrees. Entrees are served solo, “dinners” come with soup or salad and spumoni dessert.
Best find: The lasagna, manicotti and pesto tortellini sampler ($18.65 entree/$22 dinner) was a massive plate of food, best for sharing.
Pasta: Spaghetti with meat sauce ($12.25 entree/$15.90 dinner) looked muddy red and tasted long simmered. Meatballs ($2.65) were velvety, tasty from the one-two pow of pork and beef. Skip the side of sausage ($2.65), which was a tough patty.
Pizza: A blanket of mozzarella coated a bubbled pepperoni pie ($16.05, 12-inch) that was cut in a grid, not into triangular slices, which meant the thick pizza toppings didn’t slide off (nice touch). Locals will recognize the pepperoni: It’s Oberto’s.
Worth ordering again: Italian wedding soup ($5.95), a soup heavy on sausage in a light chicken broth with peppercorn-sized pasta morsels called acini de pepe.
Skip: Fettuccine Alfredo at $16.95 was priced at a premium, but didn’t deliver on flavor.
Aversano’s Italian Restaurant
6015 Parker Road E., Sumner; 253-863-3618, facebook.com/aversanos. Serving lunch and dinner daily.
Enter Aversano’s Italian Restaurant, glance to the left and notice the massive hand-carved mahogany back bar.
It’s 120 years old, originally installed at a pub in Cle Elum (as the story goes). How it wound up in Aversano’s involved bad debt (possibly) and a middle-of-the-night hoist (maybe) where the bar was removed as repayment – and then it gets even more fuzzy how it wound up at in the restaurant installed in four pieces.
Aversano’s isn’t just one of those family safe restaurants with good and fairly priced pizza and pasta. It’s a red sauce joint of the highest order with lore attached to every surface.
The salad bar – yes, a restaurant with an actual salad bar – was created from an old coal cart from Black Diamond. Wooden booths fashioned after old Seattle trolley cars once called Steve’s Gay ’90s in Tacoma home. Did I mention staffers think the restaurant might be haunted by a lady ghost? Ask your server – they might have a story or two.
The bones of the place were created by Bill and Neva Aversano who opened the restaurant in 1977; they sold it to antiques collector and pizza aficionado Steve Slack in 1995. It’s just off the main downtown business district, but in an odd locale, squeezed into an older strip mall-style business park.
Slack considers the Aversano family his food mentors. He worked at the restaurant through high school before heading to California and buying into a chain of pizza restaurants co-owned by Shakey Johnson, who locals will recall as the Shakey of the Shakey’s pizza chain that had multiple South Sound locations.
If the pizza at Aversano’s tastes like the crust at Shakey’s, that’s because Slack still special orders a dough starter culture that predates most of us. It’s the same starter culture that Shakey’s used. The antiques? Those are mostly his, except for that famous back bar.
The menu: Affordable pizzas, pastas, calzones and a few grill items.
Best find: Dinners come with a free trip through the salad bar laden with homemade pasta salads and dressings.
Pasta: Spaghetti ($12.99) with a meatball ($1.59) and sausage ($2.59) was the best bargain, with a towering mound of spaghetti slathered in a brick-red, slow-simmered meat sauce. Baseball-sized meatballs were made from ground beef fortified with pork with milk-soaked bread at their base; they tasted pillowy and tender, but with enough substance that they didn’t disintegrate. Sausage had a bite of fennel. Cream sauce, lightly sweet, clung to the Fettuccine Alfredo ($13.99).
Pizza: Chewy, yeasty and with a slight crunch. The crust was blistered from a trip in the brick oven. Get the Aversano’s special ($10.99, small), made with pepperoni, salami, sausage and beef and finished with black olives, peppers, onions and mushrooms.
Worth ordering again: Four soft eggplant slices with a crunchy parmesan coating, the dish layered with provolone and slathered in marinara ($13.99).
Skip: Chicago deep-dish pizza ($16.99) is a rare find in these parts, but Aversano’s was soupy from underbaking.
Bella Nina’s Ristorante Italiano
6218 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-564-7994, bellaninaswa.com. Serving lunch and dinner daily.
When Bella Nina’s Ristorante Italiano opened on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue, it had a different name with a regionally famous restaurant brand behind it: Vince’s.
Enzo (Vince) Mottola was the founder of Vince’s, which still has locations in Federal Way, Renton and Burien and a new eatery in Seattle called Pizzeria Pulcinella.
Vince’s opened in Tacoma in 1987. What happened next depends on who’s telling it. Some characterize it as a family falling out, but the sons of Vince’s founder — Paul and Vince Mottola — call it a shift, not a rift, when Paul peeled off from the chain and changed the restaurant’s name from Vince’s to Bella Nina, named after his daughter (she’s now a kindergarten teacher). His brother Vince continued to run the other locations, and still does.
The name change was in 1997, the year his father died and when Paul Mottola wanted to streamline the menu and shift from using the commissary that supplied Vince’s. For Paul Mottola, paring the menu also meant more time for his other love besides Italian food and family: soccer.
Eventually coaching won out to restaurant ownership and he sold the restaurant to a brother-in-law, who then sold about a decade ago to a local couple, Max and Kelly Kim, who Paul Mottola knew and approved for ownership. Mottola still eats there monthly and said the food still is based on his family’s recipes – and tastes like it.
The restaurant looks today as it did when Vince’s took over an old Mexican restaurant. A cubby hole entryway has two well-worn paths – one to a seasoned bar, the other to a dining room outfitted with open-sided booths in an endearing shade of red not found in nature, or at least not since the 1980s.
The back dining room, which longtime Bella Nina’s server Patty Carlson jokingly describes as a mafia den, is more formal, but suffers a draft. From the dusty plastic faux grapevines circling the ceiling to the bathrooms outfitted in shades reminiscent of 1970s appliance colors, the restaurant interior carries a stuck-in-time feel. It’s not fancy, but it is good food for great prices.
The menu: Massive – too big to soak up on a single visit – and economically priced, which Carlson worries will lead to the restaurant’s closure. Prices are way-below-market for pasta, pizza and entrees. Entrees come with soup or salad.
Best find: A trio with lasagna, spaghetti with meat sauce and tortellini with pesto ($15.90). Enough for dinner, lunch and another dinner.
Pasta: Spaghetti with meat sauce ($9.60) was rich and meaty, the thickest sauce on this tour and the best value. Two meatballs ($2.40) were densely textured, not crumbly. Two Italian sausages ($2.40) could be cut with a gentle nudge. Fettuccini alla caprese ($11.60) was garlicky and good.
Pizza: A chewy crust with a yeasty bite; toppings were evenly distributed so there was no chasing after flavors. Get the large meat lovers ($15.90) with pepperoni, sausage, bacon, ham and meatballs.
Worth ordering again: Fried chicken parmigiana ($15.90) with the surprise ingredient of prosciutto.
Skip: Seafood bruschetta ($12.90). The melange of cooked seafood was nicely done, but the toasted bread was slathered in provolone, which made it too slippery to hold the topping.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.