However, when I think about finding the small San Crispino Gelateria tucked out of tourists’ way behind the Trevi Fountain and sitting on the curb with
small cups pints of their wonderful signature honey-flavored gelato after a long day of walking, I remember why the city is special. I have fond memories of napping on the beautiful lawn at Villa Borghese and watching the locals walk home from work, surrounded by herds of stray cats (the true guardians of the city). Only in Rome will you stumble upon small, warmly lit trattorias that serve cacio e pepe so delicious you have to stop yourself from shoveling it in your mouth so that you can truly savor each bite.
When Ethan Stowell’s new restaurant, Rione XIII (named for Trastevere, Rome’s 13th district) opened on Capitol Hill, I did my best to push images of camera-stealing gypsies out of my head and made a reservation. Stowell has taken the best elements of Italy’s capital and boiled them down into a small narrow space on 15th Avenue. Sharing the split space with The Wandering Goose, Rione XIII has been packed since it opened this fall, serving simple, rustic Roman food.
My friend Katie and I started with the Carciofi alla Giudia (Fried Arichokes), lightly coated in pangratatto (Italian breadcrumbs) and served with aioli for dipping. I love artichokes and like many things, I love them even more when they’re fried. These were delicate and well-seasoned and addictive. We also shared the Puntarelle alla Romana, per our server’s suggestion, which is a variety of chicory available in late fall, dressed with anchovy, chili, garlic, and parmesan. The salad was incredibly crisp, and notably bitter (which we knew going into it) and packed some very bold flavors. Visually, it was quite beautiful and this reflected in the texture. While it wasn’t something I would eat every day, it was interesting and acted as a good precursor to our decadent pasta dishes.
Speaking of things I could eat every day though, their burrata was some of the best I’ve had in Seattle. I don’t want to be a broken record about burrata (although it was almost incorporated into my blog’s name originally), but when it’s good, it’s just one of life’s simple joys. Rione’s version is served with grilled bread, honey, and caramelized pears. In my version of heaven, Ethan will make this for me for breakfast everyday.
I had high expectations as we awaited our pasta course. Stowell has built a bit of a reputation for himself in this town for his pasta (Anchovies & Olives, Tavolata, How To Cook A Wolf, and Staple & Fancy all serve it), but I truly think that Rione XIII has them all beat. At least in the case of the Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe. Coated in black pepper and resting under a fluffy pile of freshly grated Pecorino Romano, the pasta was tender and perfectly al dente. Cacio e pepe is something so simple and comforting in its elements, but it has to be executed in just the right way in order to achieve that luscious quality.
The second pasta we shared was also delicious, but not quite as special. Our server seemed a bit frazzled and had buzzed through the special pasta, and as I’m often an easy-sell when it comes to specials, we ordered it. I didn’t catch the name of the type of pasta, but it was a mini-rigatoni of sorts, served with a sausage bolognese with Pecorino Romano. It was rich and bright with the tomato-based sauce, with a little bit of heat as well. It’s the kind of pasta that you’ve had many times before, but you’re always glad to see it on the menu since it’s a sure-fire bet.
We finished with a couple of scoops of the house-made pumpkin gelato. It had a wonderful blend of wintery spices and somehow felt very appropriate, even with the cold weather outside. Wholly satisfied, we finished our final sips of Barolo and took in the scene, enjoying the music (a selection of Phoenix, Passion Pit, and Empire of the Sun) which seems to be a common thread of Stowell’s restaurants, as I heard many of the same tunes at Anchovies & Olives. For those of you New Yorkers, Rione XIII is Seattle’s version of Mario Batali’s Lupa (which is a very good thing).
Overall, the food at Rione focuses on high quality ingredients and classic flavor profiles. It’s not masked by any garnishes or gimmicks. No gelée and no foam here. Of course, I admit that it’s not quite the same as eating fresh pasta in the shadow of the Pantheon. But, you can enjoy a delicious bowl of cacio e pepe without having to deal with a Roman airport employee, and that in itself, is reason enough to go.
Rione XIII, 401 15th Ave. East, Seattle, WA, (206) 838-2878, http://www.ethanstowellrestaurants.com/rionexiii, Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 am – 2:30 pm, Dinner Daily 5 pm – 11 pm, Reservations Recommended