There's more than a touch of playfulness at Rione XIII, Ethan Stowell's new joint on Capitol Hill. Rome's 20 riones are (like the arrondissements of Paris) the numbered districts of Rome's traditional neighborhoods. XIII is the official designation for the artsy-trendy Trastevere district, sort of like calling Pioneer Square "98104." The good news is that it's also Stowell's most solid entry so far in his chain of "easy-to-eat" Italian eateries.
Don't get me wrong, this is leagues more ambitious than Olive Garden, but far less fussy than Seattle's current tsunami of chef-driven, ego-driven, farm-to-table exercises. Stowell and his chef, Bandon Kirksey, have had the good sense to defer to the Italian model: simple food, fresh ingredients, traditional recipes, well-prepared but without pretension.
At a lunch this week for members of the media, we were served a superb selection of antipasti: a sweet, sweet buffalo mozzarella alongside a selection of cold cuts that included the most sophisticated of Italy's "processed" meats, mortadella. (Gets a bad rap, mortadella does, since the best recipes for its seasoning and cooking came from the town of Bologna; thanks a lot, Oscar Mayer!) The kitchen offers half a dozen versions of "Roman Street Pizzas" that don't bother with tomato sauce at all; half a dozen small plates like deep-fried artichoke; half a dozen pasta dishes (like a carbonara), and a few large plates.
(More pictures here.)
The least familiar of the small plates will likely be the puntarelle, normally translated as winter chicory. In Rome, they are prized for their crunchy bitterness, which is achieved by stripping the leaves and immersing the stems in cold water until they curl. It's a fussy, time-consuming preparation to undertake at home, but puntarelle are often sold in prepared form in Rome's street markets, with naught to do but take them home and dress them with pounded anchivies, garlic, olive oil and salt. Rione XIII's kitchen has the tangy dressing down pat, though they don't remove the leaves from the stem. No local source for puntarelle; these come from Coke Farm, a specialty supplier of exotic greens in California.
The tripe (small plate) and veal sweetbread (large plate) are the edgiest dishes, but there's really nothing on the list that should make anyone feel squeamish, unless it's the cutesy names for the cocktails (Murdemoiselle: grapefruit & gin). Stick with the Spritz (Aperol, Prosecco) and a glass of Frascati; you'll think you're in XIII, not 98112.