Italia Trattoria is barely two months old, but already feels more like a comfortable friend than neighborhood newcomer.
The inviting sounds spilling out into the Browne’s Addition neighborhood during a late summer visit might have been enough to cause anyone to make a detour with their dinner plans – if there had been a seat left in the house.
As it was, my husband and I tucked into the remaining table amid the din and laughter.
The big doors were open to the still-warm late summer air. Looking out onto the busy sidewalks and hustle at The Elk across the street, I found myself transported to the neighborhood cafes of Portland.
Owners Anna Vogel and Bethe Bowman bought the former Café Marron from Spokane restaurant pioneers William and Marsha Bond. Although the Bonds’ flagship restaurant, Luna, has always had a strong following, Café Marron struggled a bit to find its culinary niche.
Vogel and Bowman’s Italian menu quickly captured the attention of area palates. They’re filling the house with a menu of dishes from both northern and southern Italy, with an amalgam of food influences from Vogel’s formative years in Europe and across her professional experience.
She grew up in Switzerland near Lake Geneva and has worked in restaurants in Sydney, Australia, New York City and Boston, before moving to the Northwest to become Tom Douglas’ corporate chef in Seattle for better than nine years.
Bowman also worked for Douglas, then managed the front of the house at Luna before she and Vogel bought their new restaurant.
The dinner menu at Italia Trattoria is equally familiar and intriguing. Spaghetti with meatballs and red sauce ($13) is there, but so is Piedmont agnolotti dal plin ($15). Our server patiently answered my questions about unfamiliar dishes and preparations.
We started dinner by sharing a roasted beet salad with gorgonzola and hazelnut vinaigrette; it was both beautiful and delicious.
We also shared the agnolotti, stuffed pasta that looks like petite ravioli, originally from the Piedmontese region of Italy. Vogel and her team make the pasta, which is stuffed with braised pork and served with sage browned butter, in the tiny Italia kitchen. We liked the easy, comforting flavors permeated by the sage.
For a main course, I ordered Alaskan black cod ($18), served at that time with gnocchi. The dish was a study in delicate, velvety textures and flavors.
The rich feel of the fish on my tongue went well with the soft potato dumplings. My husband has since admitted that the Italia Trattoria gnocchi has ruined him for the prepackaged lumps we sometimes boil and serve at home.
His entrée was the roasted chicken breast alla diavola served with apricot fregola. The fregola is a semolina flour pasta from Sardinia that is shaped into tiny pearls. The toasted flavor of the pasta works nicely with slightly tart apricot.
The restaurant has a nice selection of Italian wines, as well as local favorites, to complement the menu. Our server recommended a white wine for my husband, who generally prefers red. The match was perfect. The Italian white blend had enough acidity and a nice mineral character that he enjoyed.
Italia Trattoria has an ever-changing seasonal menu: Now, the gnocchi are served with a roasted tomato sauce ($13), and the black cod comes with creamed white truffle potatoes, chanterelles and Madeira glaze ($20).
And there is a braised rabbit served with roasted pumpkin risotto and red wine grape sauce ($16) that would have been tempting.
Lunch at Italia Trattoria has a similar mix of familiar options and more adventuresome dishes. My dining companion liked the rustic polenta cake topped with fresh marinara sauce and mozzarella ($9). The meatball sandwich ($12) is a popular selection.
I fell in love with the gorgonzola and Walla Walla sweet onion agrodolce bruschetta ($10). The bruschetta was served with a small salad and there was plenty of food for a nice lunch. The agrodolce is a traditional sweet-and-sour Italian preparation, made at Italia Trattoria by reducing balsamic vinegar with the sweet onion.
The restaurant was quiet at brunch, served from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Take your friends and share the zeppole ($7). Made with ricotta, the small, round doughnuts are crispy and golden brown on the outside and soft and delicate inside. They’re served with an airy orange chocolate cream that is worth the splurge.
Brunch options tend toward the familiar with just a touch of Italian influence.
My husband had the most gorgeous eggs Florentine benedict – a sturdy biscuit topped with spinach, thick tomato slice, expertly poached eggs and basil hollandaise ($11). I settled on the special omelet with slices of earthy chanterelles, red onion and basil ($11).
Both were served with home fries, red potatoes that were pleasantly golden on the outside and soft inside. I hate the ubiquitous home fries that suffer because they were held in the oven too long.
Vogel and Bowman say they’re enjoying the adventure of owning their own restaurant and sharing new flavors with Spokane diners – although Vogel says she’s sometimes “terrified,” too.
“Somebody else’s dream is not always your dream,” she says. “It’s more of a personal accomplishment to do it yourself. You can have more financial security and more benefit working for somebody, be less involved and perhaps have less stress.
“Doing something gutsy always pays in the end because you’re true to yourself.”
I agree. Go try it.