Seafood dishes shine at charming, cozy Gaspare
By Providence Cicero
special to The Seattle Times
Gaspare and Dianne Trani's decision to downsize was a smart move. For 14 years, this husband and wife ran the ebullient Neapolitan neighborhood trattoria Gaspare's Ristorante Italiano in Maple Leaf. Then they opened another restaurant, the rustically romantic Il Gambero in Belltown.
They closed Il Gambero in 2003, Gaspare's in late 2004. At the time, Dianne Trani said that after a little R & R they hoped to open something smaller and simpler in another North Seattle neighborhood, and that's just what they did last summer.
Gaspare sits at the jog in the road where Greenwood meets Phinney. It's a mom-and-pop shop: He cooks the traditional Southern Italian fare; she maintains a smooth front-of-the-house presence. Together they prove that experience, in the restaurant business as in life, counts for a lot.
With fewer than 40 seats — not including the adorable vest-pocket bar or the patio tables out front — intimacy is inescapable in this captivating Craftsman bungalow. The Tranis own the building, oversaw its massive renovation and decorated it with a refreshing lack of kitsch. Abalone-shell sconces cast a glow on roughly textured walls painted in muted shades of ocher and sienna.
Upholstered screens camouflage the service station and hide the kitchen door. Like the hardwood floors, heavy draperies and antique sepia-toned snapshots of Italian life, they add to the period charm.
Wine glasses and decanters line up elegantly across a mantel, but no cloths cover the dark wood tabletops, signaling an informality appropriate to a place where, one suspects, many patrons live a walk away.
Gaspare Trani came to these shores from Ischia, a tiny island in the Bay of Naples, which may be why this chef's best efforts involve seafood. Happily for the diner, there is plenty of it on the menu, beginning with misto del mare, a seafood antipasto generous enough for two or three to share as an appetizer. Saffron, lemon, garlic and hot pepper haunt the briny shellfish liqueur, creating a luxurious broth for steamed mussels, clams and calamari.
Salads are another good way to start. Creamy cannellini beans and crumbled gorgonzola garnish the "Wild Italian," mixed greens moistened with balsamic vinaigrette. The anchovy-less Caesar salad is refreshing and lemony, though a little scantily dressed under its sprinkle of Parmesan.
Lemon brightens seafood risotto as well. The rice is less creamy than it could be, but it's topped paella-like with fat tiger prawns, rings of calamari, clams and mussels (just a few of the latter overcooked).
For linguine con gamberi, those meaty tiger prawns fly solo over noodles in simple, spectacular style sautéed with capers, lemon, white wine and a touch of rosemary.
The menu designates several pasta dishes as vegetarian or vegan, thoughtfully noting that the oil-and-vinegar dipping sauce for the bread contains anchovy. As a vegan alternative to the seafood platter, there's an antipasti of marinated seasonal vegetables, a vivid assortment that recently featured button mushrooms, grilled eggplant, zucchini, sweet red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes.
You don't have to proscribe eating animal products to happily fill up on dishes like gnocchi alla sorrentina or ravioli rustica. The gnocchi are sturdy semolina dumplings awash in an ocean of tomato-basil sauce that would be too much if it weren't so good. The ravioli have creamy middles plumped with spinach and cheese. They look like turtles huddled in a smooth mascarpone pond tinted pale green with puréed peas that also temper its richness. In a welcome contrast of textures, sliced almonds scattered on top impart a brittle crunch.
Wander away from pasta and seafood, and you may regret it. Veal piccata had the kind of gummy coating that results when flour-dredged meat hits not-quite-hot-enough oil. Chicken marsala fared better in the pan, but a viscous and salty cream sauce obscured the delicate flavor of mushrooms and wine. Those entrees offer a choice of sides: Opt for the seasonal vegetables (recently carrots, zucchini and slender asparagus) over drab penne pasta sharing the same sauce as the chicken.
For dessert, frozen novelties like a sorbet-packed lemon or chocolate hazelnut tartuffo offer less temptation than house-made tiramisu. Or nibble on tiny almond biscotti with a glass of vin santo or an espresso, kick back and enjoy being taken care of.
Dianne Trani is a warm hostess, and her front-of-the-house staff caters to customers like an Italian mama coddles her kids. They'll warm up a tepid cappuccino, offer to divide the salad among you or suggest a wine to match your entree.
They can mix a mean cocktail, too. All this in a place that feels as comfortable as home.