As someone who used to live outside a small town in central Italy (and makes an annual pilgrimage back), I don’t think we can have enough reputable Italian restaurants in Seattle. But hitting the gelato-sweet spot that good Italian hits is tougher than an over-cooked Bistecca Fiorentina. Too many places either focus on overwhelming by pure weight or go overboard with adaptations that sacrifice flavor for attempted flair. Recently, I stopped by Le Messe, Brian Clevenger’s latest (at 1823 Eastlake Ave E), and was delighted to find they understand that the best Italian eating and drinking is actually simple. Just perfectly utilizing quality ingredients in well-balanced combinations.
It starts for me, like with any good meal, with the cocktails. Put together by amiable Le Messe general manager and beverage director Justin Rosgen, there are six choices on the house socktails list, and while there’s an expected lean towards Italian items, the list doesn’t get stuck trying to be theme-y. Instead, it’s more globally inclusive, with intriguing numbers featuring all the base spirits. Tequila fan? Try the Carlota Piccante, a smoky, citrus mix of tequila, elderflower, cucumber, lemon, and local Scrappy’s Firewater bitters, which delivers a smooth ending heat without making you wince.
My favorite was the Amaro Punch -- deceptively basic, solely aged rum, Boston-made Balsam amaro, lime, and grenadine. It had a rich, tangy taste with lovely herbal undertones, all served over a big ice cube. Though you could drink cocktails all night, beer and cider are also available, and a mostly-Italian wine list that’s ample without being daunting. The Terre del Barolo Nebbiolo d’Alba is a solid choice, a full-bodied, red-fruit conveying wine.
That wine’s a worthy pick – according to my meat-eating companions – if thinking about the Strozzapreti, which comes with pork shank and root vegetables, for your pasta. My top pasta was the Cappeletti with sage, brown butter, hazelnuts, and pecorino. Again, a basic dish, but done wonderfully.
There are seven pastas to choose from, as well as three “Proteins.” But don’t skip the “Raw, Vegetable, Other” opening section, a collection of ten dishes ranging from sunchoke soup to lamb meatballs, the latter of which had a the soft texture and distinctive flavor. The charred chicory was a stand-out, too, grilled crisp on one side and bathing in a creamy, cheesy, fonduta.
The chicory was yet another dish without a surfeit of ingredients – just a few, done right. The atmosphere in the triangle-shaped Le Messe matches this idea (Messe means “harvest” in Italian, following along the Clevenger-loves-his-produce theme after siblings Raccolto and Vendemmia, both of which can also be translated as “harvest”), with a nearly-minimalist Northwest elegant aesthetic. Straight-forward wooden tables and booths, low-hanging lights with subtly artistic features, concrete floors, white walls.
There’s an open kitchen with a chef’s counter if you want to get close to the action, and a bar around the corner and slightly behind the kitchen if you want to get close to the drinks action – there’s also a little light-wood booth adjacent to the bar that would be perfect to cuddle into with a couple of pals during the twice-a-day happy hour (5 – 6 p.m.; 9 – 10 p.m.). The restaurant is in a fairly quiet stretch of Eastlake and worth traveling to try out. Those who live close, hopefully you’ve already started your La Messe dolce vita.