Seattle: Ristorante Picolinos
6415 32nd Avenue NW, Seattle WA 98117 (map); 206-781-8000
Pizza style: Neapolitan
Oven type: Gas-assist wood oven
The skinny: By the book VPN-certified pies served happily alongside more creative topping choices
Price: 12-inch pizzas, $8-$10 lunch, $11-$17 dinner
It's a good time to be a pizza-lover in Ballard. This small Scandinavian-founded neighborhood tucked into the northwest corner of Seattle can boast, among its numerous lavishly-praised restaurants, three of the most highly regarded pizzerias in the city: Delancey on NW 70th, Veraci on NW Market, and Ristorante Picolinos on 32nd Avenue NW. For those seeking Neapolitan-style pies, Picolinos (loosely translated as "little darlings") is an excellent choice.
No further proof is needed once the classic Margherita hits the table. All the telltale signs are there: the golden, blistered, paper-thin crust; the well-charred undercarriage; the simple yet sweet San Marzano tomato sauce; the dollops of fresh, creamy mozzarella; the leaves of fragrant basil, darkened to a forest green in the domed wood-burning oven; and the sheen of the olive oil poured judiciously over the entire tapestry. Bite into it and your tongue will finish the tale that started with your eyes: this is expertly crafted pizza from a pizzaiolo well-acquainted with the flavors of Naples.
Consistency can be a little shaky, but nothing to worry too much about. On one visit the pizzaiolo was quite liberal with the basil, distributing it evenly over the whole pie, but on a separate dinner each slice had been rationed a single small leaf. The cornicione one night was a tad on the dense side, lacking any puffiness, but at lunch the next day it boasted an airy, open crumb. Thankfully, the flavors are dependably solid day in and day out, and the surprisingly generous bowl of freshly grated Parmesan they give you with every meal only serves to enhance them.
The restaurant...pardon, ristorante...is half a block long, and just as enormous inside as you would expect it be, with multiple dining rooms and lounges stretching from one end of the beautiful brick building to the other. The walls are practically sagging with art, photographs, light fixtures, maps, and even a mounted deer head. And the food at Picolinos is as stylistically broad as the decor.
Take the Picolinos, the restaurant's namesake pie—and its most baffling one. On a bed of the familiar Neapolitan crust and red sauce is a smattering of pellet-sausage and greasy red pepperoni straight out of any American pizza parlor. The meaty punch the Picolinos delivers is more likely to take you back to the pizzas of your youth than it is to evoke anything Neapolitan. Odd, then, that the owners chose this particular pie to bear their name, especially when they so prominently advertise their Vera Pizza Napoletana certification.
Regardless, I appreciate that Ristorante Picolinos takes some chances and steps outside the rigid VPN boundaries. And no further step could be taken than their four "New World Pizzas," all of which offer toppings Anthony Mangieri would slit his wrists before serving.
The Alla Salsiccia di Agnello I ordered came uncut and oval, not round, topped with a balsamic vinegar reduction, gorgonzola, dates, pine nuts, and grilled lamb sausage. As you may have guessed, this is a rich pizza, so much so that I can't imagine anyone eating more than one slice of it, but that's not to say it isn't delicious (because it is). The piquant gorgonzola is front and center on the palate here, with notes of the balsamic reduction playing on the back of the tongue. The dates alone are overpoweringly sugary, but coupled with the hearty lamb balance out nicely, creating a sweet-and-savory marriage of flavors that couldn't work better. It's a pity that the sausage is sliced, but it's still very flavorful, and without a hint of gaminess. If dates and lamb aren't your thing, try one of the other pies in this category: chopped clams, sauteed prawns, and sweet mango all make appearances.
In stark contrast, the Marinara pie couldn't be simpler, with only oregano and garlic added to the sauce and crust. Though it's only a couple steps away from the Margherita, it tastes nothing like it, with a strong garlic presence that isn't overbearing. Refreshing.
Can't decide what to order? Then the Quattro Stagioni is for you. This pie is divided into quarters, with each segment devoted to one type of pizza or topping. You have a quarter of a Margherita, a quarter topped with a thin and salty salami, a quarter topped with sliced Italian ham, and a quarter topped with mushrooms. Only the Italian ham quadrant disappointed; the ham was slightly too thick, leaving it chewy and slimy, whereas I would have preferred thin and crispy (like the fantastic salami). The mushrooms acted like scrumptious little sponges, soaking up the flavors of the tomatoes, olive oil, and the grease runoff from the salami territory.
Upon closer inspection of the oven, I discovered that it is not heated solely by a pyre of burning wood, but instead augmented by gas flames shooting up behind a grate at the back of the dome. The oven's floor is also regulated electronically so that it never drops below the low 500s.
In the upcoming winter, the owners of Picolinos are going to open the back patio and fire up the wood-burning oven they had constructed and shipped over from Naples. The oven's builder, Dino Santonicola, should be manning it as well. Who else could be better suited for the job? Born in Naples, he grew up making pies in several different pizzerias before moving to the states and establishing Via Tribunali, another VPN-certified pizzeria here in Seattle. Plus, he left his name right on the front of the oven. You know, so as not to confuse it with anyone else's oven that might be lying around.
Ristorante Picolinos offers something for everyone, whether you're craving traditional Neapolitan fare or something a tad more adventurous. If the packed house at 8:30pm on a Thursday night was any indication, Picolinos is a neighborhood favorite, and rightly so.