Updated Friday, November 30, 2012 at 07:01 AM
Ethan Stowell named his first restaurant Union, after the street where it once lived. Then he got increasingly more original.
A 30-foot slab of Vashon fir became a communal table and the inspiration for Tavolàta in Belltown. How to Cook a Wolf on Queen Anne pays homage to M.F.K. Fisher. Anchovies & Olives underscores the seafood focus of that Pike/Pine establishment. Staple & Fancy Mercantile in Ballard was a name plucked from The Kolstrand Building’s 100-year history.
Now comes Rione XIII, a tribute to Rome, the numerals referring specifically to Trastevere, a diverse, culturally rich, restaurant-heavy district not unlike Capitol Hill.
Physically, Rione most resembles Staple & Fancy, from the brick walls to the paned glass window behind the bar that reveals next-door neighbor, The Wandering Goose. But Rione feels more spacious; the bar is twice as big and its corner location allows broad windows on two sides. It has both street appeal and seat appeal.
Rione (pronounced Ree-OH-nay) is the first Stowell restaurant to feel derivative. There’s nothing wrong with repeating yourself, especially when you’ve built a successful track record. Still we’ve been primed to expect surprises from this talented chef/restaurateur.
Rione’s menu scans like a collection of Stowell’s greatest hits: antipasti, pasta, a clutch of small plates, and a handful of larger ones. But it’s stocked with Roman classics, such as carciofi alla Giudia (fried baby artichokes) and tonnarelli cacio e pepe (pasta with black pepper and sheep’s milk cheese).
“Roman street pizza” is a new genre for Stowell. Roman-style pizza is noted for its thin, crackling crust. The pies here are generous oblongs, creatively topped and handsomely presented on a wooden cutting board along with a big knife. Of the two I tried, one was puffy and over-charred; the other, lavished with chanterelles, roasted garlic, thyme and pecorino, came closer to the ideal.
Rione shouldn’t be a stretch for Stowell and his experienced team, among them chef Brandon Kirksey, who previously led Tavolàta’s kitchen, and corporate wine director Sennen David, Rione’s general manager. It should have been a cinch to get it up and running smoothly.
Yet five weeks after the August opening, I encountered a hostess ill-equipped to handle a packed weeknight house, and an overextended bartender who apologized repeatedly for long-delayed food. Some dishes, when they finally arrived, were subpar. The antipasti plate lacked seasoning or even olive oil. Fried artichokes were as shriveled and dry as autumn leaves.
Pasta was a bright spot. Guanciale (cured pork cheeks) enriched a chili-warmed tomato sauce for sturdy bucatini. Tonnarelli (a squared spaghetti noodle) bristling with cracked pepper under a steep hill of grated pecorino, was sublime.
I was recognized at some point that evening, but I ate undetected on two other occasions. The only dish that subsequently disappointed was fettuccini and artichokes dusted with bottarga, cured and salted mullet roe that somehow tasted as bland as sawdust.
In all other respects, Rione redeemed itself. Service was as crisp and sharp as the puntarelle salad, constructed with a type of chicory whose stiff, bitter stalks stand up well to a feisty anchovy, garlic and chili dressing, and a blizzard of grated Parmesan.
One night’s vivid antipasti roundup included a sweet-edged terrine of pork and duck, along with Romanesco (pale green Roman cauliflower) roasted with baby turnips and preserved lemon. Fried artichokes, revisited at lunch, retained their tender hearts without sacrificing crunch, and were deliciously gritty with pangrattato (fried breadcrumbs).
Among large plates, capers, lemon and artichokes danced with voluptuous lobes of veal sweetbreads. Achingly tender braised oxtail nearly melted off the bone into a puddle of tomato sauce and creamy herbed polenta.
At lunch, that same vivid tomato sauce turned a meatball sandwich into a messy delight. Prosciutto meatballs no less! Now there was a surprise.
Dessert was another revelation. A whisper of amaretto lent intrigue to a simple chocolate cake, sided with a scoop of stracciatella gelato (chocolate chip to you and me). Pumpkin gelato tickled the nose with spices before you even picked up the spoon. Rione turns out to be a Roman holiday after all.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat.
Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carciofi alla Giudia$9
Puntarelle alla Romana$11
Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe $14
Oxtails alla Vaccinara$19
401 15th Ave. E., Seattle
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-11 p.m. daily
Prices: $$$ (Small plates $8-$12; pizza & pasta $14-$15; large plates $19-$28)
Drinks: Cocktails, beer, Italian and Northwest wines
Parking: On street or in nearby lots
Sound: Fashionably loud
Who should go: A Roman holiday for Ethan Stowell fans
Credit cards: All major
Access: No obstacles
Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times
Ethan Stowell, right, brought Brandon Kirksey in as head chef to his new Capitol Hill restaurant Rione XIII.