Usually when my parents suggest a restaurant, I nod and tell them I’ll think about it. I love my family but apart from Chinese food, our tastes differ. That isn’t to say my parents don’t enjoy good food. They just enjoy different things than I do. I mean, while I’m rather adventurous, they’re rather set in their ways sometimes and head to places that make familiar dishes that they know they’ll enjoy. I mean, for example, it’s almost a guarantee that my mom will order a rack of lamb when it’s anywhere near the menu. My dad is a little less predictable but just by looking at a menu, I can probably narrow it down to the 2 or 3 things that would be on his radar. So when they told me to go to Mamma Melina Ristorante when I was in Seattle, I had my doubts.
Mamma Melina Ristorante (which I will just call Melina’s from now on) is located in the university district of Seattle where the University of Washington is located. The word for the area is “quaint”. Cute little pastel houses line the quiet streets (probably because school was out). Pets sleep on porches as locals ride down the streets on bikes.
The decor is…unexpected? I thought that Melina’s would be more of a rustic, family-style restaurant as “Mamma Melina” conjures up images of a little Italian grandma making old school home cooking in a tiny kitchen. Instead, the modern glass and brick building looks like it would fit better in Yaletown than Tuscany. I’m told that Melina’s recently moved to their current location and the old restaurant is more what I thought it would look like.
Melina’s is one of the cooler looking restaurants I’ve been to. I really enjoy the elegance of the white tablecloths, soft lighting and wood accents contrasting with the stark industrial look brought on by the brushed aluminum and unfinished floors. I especially like the wacky lighting apparatus with the paintings stuck to it…like one of those Italian painters the Ninja Turtles are named for went nuts at an IKEA.
There are a lot of cues from fine dining here. The decor is clean and precise. The servers are well trained and attentive (my water was never past half full). However, the menu is classic Italian with a little West Coast influence…all at much more reasonable prices than I was expecting. Nothing on the menu is more than $25 while most dishes fall in the $15-20 range. They even offer a 2-course menu at lunch for $13 which includes an appetizer or salad plus an entree, which seems like very good value for money.
…although that might have something to do with the awful Japanese restaurant I ate at the night before that wanted $20 for a nabeyaki udon but that’s a story (maybe) for another day.
When you’re seated, you get a plate of focaccia and olive oil. The focaccia is warm and fluffy although a little denser than I thought focaccia should be. Still, it was a nice start and the olive oil was delicious. There was a brown paste at the bottom of it that I assume is just minced olives but it had a salty hit in there that suggested anchovies to me but so much more interesting and flavorful than plain butter.
I started with the calamari, which were lightly battered and fried. The calamari were tender and well seasoned while the batter was nicely crisp and stayed on the calamari rather than falling apart. I mostly skipped the cocktail sauce which I thought was a little too sweet. A squirt of lemon and some pepper was just fine by me.
When I saw that they had a wood fire oven, I had to try one of their pizzas. This is the Melina pizza ($15), which I assume is their best since it’s named for the restaurant. The toppings are simple…no crazy meat lovers deep dish here. In fact, there isn’t even any meat! I know I’m about as carnivorous as it gets but I was sold by wild mushrooms, fresh mozzerella and black truffles.
They weren’t kidding around with the wood fire oven. There’s significant “leoparding” pattern on the bottom and some light blistering of the dough. The crust tastes good but I didn’t much of the smoky, charred flavors from the wood fire despite the appearance. I didn’t get a whole lot of truffle either but the mushrooms are earthy and umami, delicious with the creamy mozzarella.
Also on the table was linguine con salmone e polpa di granchio ($19), which is linguine with wild Oregon smoked salmon, fresh Dungeness crab and light cream. I found the pasta was a bit dry but the flavors were all there with the fresh seafood and light, herb-y sauce.
This is the vitello ai fungi selvatici ($20) or veal scaloppine with seasonal mushrooms and crispy polenta. There’s so much flavor in that gravy with the mushrooms! The veal is very tender and not overcooked, despite being very thin.
Melina’s has a lot of great touches and attention to detail that make it a winner. Servers are friendly and knowledgable. The food is prepared with care and precision…a fine dining take on classic Italian without the fine dining price. Even the bathrooms were impressive…huge, clean and heated toilet seats!
However, there were some stumbles. About half an hour elapsed between our appetizers and entrees, which is too long anywhere. In their defense, the restaurant was packed and there was two parties of 10+ in there for birthdays parties. However, even after our server was reminded of our order, it still took another 10 minutes, which tells me our order was lost on the assembly line somewhere.
Even with that in mind, Melina’s is a good mix of fun atmosphere and good food at a reasonable price. If you’re in Seattle this weekend to do some shopping and feel like Italian food, make the short drive to the university district and give Mamma Melina Ristorante a try.
Summary: Mamma Melina Ristorante puts a fine dining spin on Italian classics at affordable prices. The atmosphere is modern and contemporary and the servers are knowledgable and attentive. Service can be slow if the dining room is full as Melina’s is fairly popular in the area but the food is tasty, worth the wait. Nibble on the complementary focaccia and enjoy the dining room’s interesting accent pieces like the lighting fixture/wall of paintings mounted on the ceiling.