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Originally published Friday, May 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant review

Pulcinella dishes up true Neapolitan pizza

Restaurant review: Pizzeria Pulcinella — This chic European cafe gets the mood right for enjoying true Neapolitan pizza and other Italian classics like lasagna, cannelloni and eggplant parmigiana, with an exceedingly solicitous staff that copes well with the ebb and flow at this busy neighborhood gathering place; three-star review by Providence Cicero.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Insalata Pulcinella $9.95
Eggplant Parmigiana $8.95
Pizza Margherita $10.50
Cannelloni do Magro $11.50
Antipasto $12.50

Pizzeria Pulcinella 3 stars

10003 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle

206-772-6861

www.pulcinellapizza.com

Reservations: Accepted.

Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-10:30 p.m. Fridays, noon-10:30 p.m. Saturdays and noon-9:30 p.m. Sundays.

Prices: $$ (Pizza $9.95-$13.25; pasta $11-$12; salads and appetizers $7.95-$12.95.)

Drinks: Italian wines, beers and sodas; espresso.

Parking: Free on site.

Sound: Festive.

Who should go: Lovers of true Neapolitan pizza.

Credit cards: All major cards.

Access: No obstacles to access.

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A decade ago, frustrated with the dearth of good pizza in our neighborhood, my husband became a self-taught pizzaiolo. He experimented with different flour and tweaked his dough recipe constantly. He got creative with toppings (eggs, arugula and, once, bacon fat) and dreamed of a wood-fired oven for the backyard (still a dream). For a long time, he arguably made the best pizza crust around.

Then true Neapolitan pizza swaggered into town, and suddenly Seattle was rolling in very good dough. Tutta Bella and Via Tribunali rose and multiplied. Now there's Pizzeria Pulcinella, a beguiling slice of Naples in Rainier Beach.

The building, which dates to 1911, was long the site of Lakeside Tavern. Now it's a chic European cafe with marble countertops and tables. The pale walls sport fresh paint and decorative molding; the woodwork gleams; even the bricks look scrubbed. Flowers sprout from a planter made of olive-oil cans hanging from the wrought-iron railing out front. An effigy of Pulcinella, the masked Comedia dell'Arte clown, hovers near the hearth.

That powerful wood-fired oven bakes the thin 12-inch rounds in seconds, rather than minutes. The pies come to the table uncut; shears are provided so you can divvy it up any way you like. The supple crust is saggy but not soggy, with a light char, a delicate tension and just enough chew. The San Marzano tomato sauce is vibrant; the soft, whole-milk mozzarella and other toppings are dealt in moderation.

These pizzas aren't about excess. They conform to the strict rules of "Vera Pizza Napoletana" (True Neapolitan Pizza). Next month Pulcinella — together with Via Tribunali, the newest Tutta Bella store and Piccolino's in Ballard — will receive official certification from the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association of Naples. It's the pizza equivalent of a papal blessing.

Of Pulcinella's dozen or so pies (named for locations around Naples), I'm partial to some of the simplest: the basil-embellished Margherita; the tomato-less Pompeii with its emerald sheen of pine-nutty pesto; the meaty Forcella with ham, pepperoni and pepperoncini igniting each bite; and the Vesuvio topped with red onion and wonderful fennel-stoked sausage.

Sausage and broccoli topped the one pizza that didn't delight, but only because those parboiled florets tasted untouched by their time in the oven.

You might start a meal here by sharing the vinaigrette-dressed Insalata Pulcinella, which tucks fresh pear, dried cranberries, slivered almonds and bits of soft mozzarella among tender red and green lettuces. The antipasto plate is notable for the peppery marinated vegetables accompanying slices of salami and cheese.

Eggplant Parmigiana, so often greasy or leaden, is prepared here with great integrity. So are the two baked pastas: meaty, ricotta-rich lasagna, good but swimming in oily tomato sauce; and cannelloni, filled with a savory blend of spinach, pecorino and ricotta, that has more finesse.

The signature dessert "Il Segreto di Pulcinella" is essentially a tiramisu pizza. Don't try to eat this yourself.

If you haven't brought a crowd, stick with cannoli, spumoni or crema di limone, a frozen confection packed and shipped from Italy in glass champagne flutes. (Go often; collect a set.)

Pulcinella's proprietors — Vince Mottola, Fred Martichusk and David Dorough — all have roots in Vince's Italian Restaurants of Renton, Burien and Federal Way. Mottola, whose father founded the original Vince's in 1957, grew up in Rainier Valley. "It's been exciting," he says, "to take a building that was an eyesore for so many years and transform it into a gathering place that I hope is now a source of pride in the community."

And gathering place it is, for old and young, couples and crowds, dressed up or not. Some are in and out in minutes; others linger over excellent espresso, a frosty Peroni from the tap, or a bottle of wine from a reasonably priced, all-Italian list. The exceedingly solicitous staff copes well with the busy ebb and flow.

Lucky you if you live nearby. My only problem: It's 30 miles from my front door.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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