Filiberto's Cucina Italiana
653 SW 152nd St., Burien, WA (map)
Pizza style: Neapolitan-inspired, with American influences
Oven type: Gas flame
The skinny: Despite some clumsiness with the cheese and oven heat levels, there are the makings of good pizza here, especially if you take the do-it-yourself approach with a side of meatballs
Price: 12-inch Margherita, $11.50 (it should be noted that the prices on the online menu are not up-to-date)
Sometimes you wish you could like the food you've been served more than you actually do. Whether it's because you know the chef, or it's a new spot that opened around the corner from your apartment, or perhaps because everyone else says it's great, your honest opinion of a less-than-life-changing meal can be a rude awakening indeed. This unfortunately was the case for me at a longtime Seattle institute, Filiberto's Cucina Italiana, at least until a little side dish crossover saved the day.
The owner, Mina Perry, is never far, either chatting with diners tableside or hard at work in the kitchen. Filiberto's seems to run at her pace: languid and relaxed. Food can take a spell and a half to reach your table, so a long chat with a friend (or Mina herself) over a glass of wine is advised. Her presence in the dining room is immediately noticeable, but what else would you expect from dropping a short, highly expressive Italian woman from Campania into one of Seattle's considerably less chic neighborhoods?
I've seen photos of Filiberto's Margherita with puffier crusts than the one I was served, but never any with this one's white-as-a-ghost undercarriage. My guess is the floor of the gas flame oven hadn't reached full temperature by the time my lunchtime pizzas hit the stone, though this really shouldn't be an excuse, just turn it on ahead of time. The bottom did get cooked — just barely — but there was a distinct layer of gummy, uncooked dough resting between the bottom half of the crust and the sauce above it.
Thank goodness the crust tastes as good as it does. Even sans char, you can tell this is a recipe Ms. Perry has had plenty of time to perfect. I've eaten so many crusts where the dough hasn't had time to develop complex flavors or, in most cases, just hasn't been augmented with enough salt. Neither is a problem here. Perry's dough is like a good crusty bread, crackling when bitten to yield a soft, warm, pillowy interior.
Her red sauce embraces minimalism, sticking to crushed tomatoes and a little salt, and it works well. A shame, then, that on the Margherita it's inundated with a much-too-thick layer of greasy aged mozzarella that wouldn't be desirable on most styles of pizza, and certainly not this one. The oil even seeps into the crust, inflicting major tip sag to the inner few inches of the pie. To be fair, it's one of the better aged mozzarellas I've eaten, but it completely dominates everything else on the pizza. Until you reach the end crust, it's all you'll taste.
Leaps and bounds better was the Con la Cipolla, i.e. "with onion." Here Perry cuts back on the sauce with a light application, then tops it with a scant amount of grated parmesan, a drizzle of olive oil, and thin slices of onions. The onions are perfect, cooked down until tender and delightfully sweet. The limited toppings make for a better-balanced pizza than the Margherita, and beyond a few minutes in a hotter oven, it's hard to imagine how it could be improved.
But then I had a stroke of genius (if I do say so myself). Why not order a meatball and put that on the pizza? Sure enough, slicing up one of Perry's delicate spheres of seasoned beef and applying them to either pizza increased their crave-worthiness tenfold. The meatballs pair particularly well with the Con la Cipolla, so if you order that pizza, I highly suggest following in my footsteps.
The pizza at Filiberto's isn't bad; I just expected more from a genuine southern Italian in her 70s. No doubt these were probably the best pies for decades in Seattle. But with the arrival of Delancey, Flying Squirrel, and The Independent in more recent years, the bar's been raised. Those meatballs do pick up a lot of the slack, though.