Once or twice a week, on my way to lunch at Planet Java over on Washington Street, I pass by an odd little triangular building made of brick, a remnant from Seattle’s not old but certainly unremembered past, when the laying of new street schemes over older grids, the clashing of one major landowner’s grid against another’s, the interplay between streets and railway easements and tectonic shifts in the city’s dream of itself left little wedge-shaped lots here and there. Although this building predates the Alaskan Way viaduct that nearly clips its corner, it looks as though the building were cut in half at an angle to make room for that modern highway.
Actually, I’ve had not only to walk past this little earthen pie-slice but walk around it, since it stands in the direct line that the west sidewalk of Western Avenue would take if Western Avenue continued past Yesler. It does not. Yesler, that great dividing fold in the Seattle map, puts paid to Western’s southward meander. A likeness of it continues as the alley between this little building and its more regular neighbors toward First Avenue. I used to be able to walk through this alley, but an iron fence was put up across it some years ago, and I am now obliged to skim the northwest corner of this triangular edifice on my way to lunch.
There is an Italian restaurant in this little wedge. The dome-shaped awning above the door reads Ristorante in Italian colors. I’ve always noted how the blindingly white linens sprout from water goblets at clean little tables next to the windows, and always thought “that place must be expensive”. Periodically, as I turn the northwest corner, I would see a very Italian-looking man — indeed a very Italian cheffish man — standing outside against the western wall, one hand in a pocket under his apron, the other holding a cigarette. I assumed this was the owner, and though I always continued on my way to my favorite diner, inwardly I registered a little glow of appreciation. Local. Independent. Authentic. I couldn’t afford even to pop my head inside, but I was glad the place was there.
That place, as it turns out, is the Ristorante Al Boccalino, and that man, that Italian man, is Luigi Denunzio, an Apuliano from Brindisi who has been creating a little network of Italian eateries in Pioneer Square — he calls the entirety of this enterprise Luigi’s Little Italy — and cooking in them since 1977.
I found this out today when my friend Mick came downtown to meet me for lunch. Mick is easy, and unless he has a particular hankering for something really flavorful and spicy, we usually end up walking over to Planet Java. Today, as we crossed Yesler and were beginning the traverse around the little brick triangle, Mick, who is half Italian, looked up at the awning, slowed, and asked what this place was.
I commented that I thought it was spendy, but I’d be up for an adventure if the spirit was moving him. So we went in for lunch. Luigi came over, bid us “Buon giorno!” and asked how we were. He doesn’t have the handlebar moustache that he’s had in the past, but he still looks unmistakably like an Italian chef. A barrel from the waist up now, he was obviously an imposing figure in his youth. Today he wore sweats and maybe even flip-flops, but I mainly was entranced by his face, which seemed so authentically foreign. He was thinking the same thing about Mick, obviously, because when he came back with our water he asked what part of the world Mick was from.
In his fifties now, Mick has silvered handsomely in the dozen years I have known him, and his face has taken on the distinction of a gentleman with an interesting heritage who might tell you some interesting stories. As he ages, his lines become more suggestive of that heritage. Mick said, “I’m Armenian and Italian.”
Signor Denunzio then said “You have that European look to you.”
Mick then added, “My father’s name was B— and my mother’s name was Palermo.” Luigi’s eyebrows were carried upwards by a brief wave of recognition, of what I don’t know. Mick later said that in the old days, people who took the name of the town they came from as their surname either were very important people in that town or they were bastards who could claim no other. In any case, Mick and Luigi were contemporaries much of whose family heritage lay in the same corner of the world (although, as Mick will tell you, Sicily is a world again unto itself).
But you wish to know about the food. It was marvelous. I was shocked to find that a lunch entree, picked from a list of about twenty items printed simply on a white sheet of paper and including salad and bread, was under $7, and you could choose any two for $9.95. The special, a lasagna-like dish whose name I will insert inside the following parentheses when I remember it or ask Mick (timballo?), sounded delicious, and operating under the principle that in a place such as this “you should always get what they want you to get”, Mick said “I’ll have that.”
I opted to broaden the return on our research investment by picking two items from the menu, which included such favorites as fettucine alfredo and shrimp scampi. The tomato and pesto tortelini was a no-brainer for me, but I asked Luigi what would be a good partner dish. “Oh, the sausage!” he exclaimed.
Friends, we made good choices this day. I don’t know the lingo that food critics use, but the sausage was grilled up dark and rested on a heap of cannellini beans with tomatoes. It was good. And the tortellini, mwah. I have never had better. The salad, I have to say, could not hold a candle to my own Angela’s fresh green salads, which would make any chef anywhere give up trying, but it was truly delicious. And the bread was a triangle (apropos!) of focaccia that was not too salty — a frequent blunder that compels me to eye focaccias askance. Neither of us tried desert, but I might do that next time.
I have never seen Mick so delighted. Whenever Luigi turned away from us Mick opened his eyes and mouth wide in an expression as if to say, “Can you believe our luck?” Al Boccalino is the real deal — delicious authentic Italian at a great price — and both Mick and I left happy.
I know where Angela and I are going on our next date, if Signor Denunzio stays open for 18 more years.