Carmine's without Carmine

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Il Terrazzo.jpg

It's hard not to use the word "icon" when talking about Il Terrazzo Carmine. Sheer longevity, if nothing else: it's just short of 30 years old, an eternity in the fast-moving hospitality industry. The restaurant is tucked inside a handsome brick & stone building in the heart of Pioneer Square, at First & Jackson, overlooking a little patch of garden (the terrace, the terrazzo). The Carmine part, that's for Carmine Smeraldo, born in Naples, who worked his way up from cleaning hotel toilets to a spot at the right hand of the longtime restaurateur who brought northern Italian cuisine to Vancouver, BC: Umberto Menghe.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Menghe was opening restaurants at a furious pace, and he sent Carmine down to Seattle to test the waters. First came Umberto's Ristorante on King Street, then, in 1984,a block away, Il Terrazzo.

Menghe himself withdrew from Seattle a few years later, and Umberto's closed, but Il Terrazzo remained and was given the additional name "Carmine's." For decades it has been the touchstone of a warm, elegant Italian style of dining. You wouldn't call it "rustic" because that implies bare tabletops and mismatched china, but it's hardly stuffy or starchy-formal. Carmine attracted great talent. Luciano Bardinelli, for example, now semi-retired on the California coast; Scott Carsberg, for another.

At the heart of Il Terrazzo is the spread of antipasti misti, the display of vegetables and cold cuts so common in Italy (and finally at a couple of places in Seattle: The Whale Wins, Bar Sajor). A daily menu of fish, grilled meat, homemade pasta. A wine list that doesn't neglect famous bottles yet remains accessible. Service that's attentive without being overbearing.

A recent lunch included a caprese salad with mozzarella di bufala flown in from Campania, and a risotto with English peas and fragrant porcini. The veal-stuffed cannelloni were smothered with a sauce that tasted of fresh tomatoes. The restaurant buzzed with contentment.

Until he passed away suddenly at the beginning of 2012, Carmine himself ran the dining room with unflagging energy. Today his longtime associate, George Dyksterhuis, is at the podium, greeting a steady line of guests out for a celebratory lunch. This is not a parade of mourners but of regulars who return for the pleasure and familiarity of the elegant room and the superb food.

There's always the danger, when an owner dies, that a restaurant will stumble or lose its way. That has not happened at Carmine's. Il Terrazzo is in good hands; Carmine's soul is still alive.

Il Terrazzo Carmine, 411 1st Avenue, Seattle, 206-467-7797  Il Terrazzo Carmine on Urbanspoon

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This page contains a single entry by Cornichon published on May 1, 2013 11:30 AM.

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