Three things I know to be true: Salad is only as good as its dressing, pasta as good as its sauce, and pizza as good as its dough. Naturally, all this comes down to a restaurant that is as good as its chef. Staccato at the Fire Hall's Executive Chef James Malone has worked in the restaurant industry all his life; from his beginnings in a family-run bakery and deli in Spokane; to his apprenticeship with the renowned Michel Richard at DC's famed Citronelle. There, Malone set out to challenge himself amongst what he called "the masters of French cuisine - the black belts."
From there, Malone came across Susan Pasquetti's ad for a head chef in Central Oregon. Malone and Pasquetti, Staccato's owner, hit it off instantly.
"Susan had a dream. She saved up enough to open a restaurant and it was great to be able to come and help her succeed with that," he said.
As a thank you for helping get the restaurant off the ground, Pasquetti took Malone on a three-week tour of Northern Italy at the end of 2007. While Malone found that the Italian's techniques weren't as refined as the ones being used in the U.S., he was impressed by the short distance of food from farm to plate.
"We try to do that at Staccato as much as we can," said Malone who goes to the Farmer's Market on a weekly basis.
The first two years were a challenge, but Staccato's success is reflected in its repeated nomination of "Best Italian Restaurant" in local media, including The Source Weekly, year after year. Seeing such boasts, there was nothing doing but to try it for myself. For some extra perspective, I brought some friends along with some Italian roots.
My husband, Seb, and I shared the Staccato salad (sans Gorgonzola): baby greens, dried cranberries and toasted almonds tossed with sherry vinaigrette ($9). Ordering the Caesar was our friend Brandy who is something of a connoisseur when it comes to Caesar salad dressing. Her hearts of romaine tossed with zesty dressing and topped with an ancho-parmesan tuille ($9) were given the highest approval. Brandy's husband, Chris, ordered a bowl of butternut squash bisque ($8) and despite loathing squash, loved this creamy presentation.
My tastes, alas, are not very refined: There is nothing I love more than a choice between pizza or pasta (and usually try to find willing participants to allow me a helping of each), but it turns out Malone and his talented team had something special planned for the vegan at our table. I will take a chef's surprise creation any day.
Seb and Brandy were gracious enough to share their dishes with me. Seb ordered the Capellini Pomodoro: angel hair pasta tossed with diced tomatoes, white wine, extra virgin olive oil and basil ($13). Our wonderful waitress, Jeanine, had it prepared with vegetable stock rather than chicken. It never fails to delight me how a few simple ingredients can bring a forkful of pleasure to the palette.
Brandy ordered half her Caprese Pizza ($11) without cheese and offered it to me. Usually, the tomatoes I see on pizzas look like they belong in a sandwich or taco: cold slices layered on top or chopped pieces sprinkled all over. The San Marzano tomatoes mingled with basil chiffonade were juicy and bursting with flavor.
I was working on my chef's special ($13): a beautifully presented square plate with a colorful creation in each corner. The Brussels sprouts drizzled in sauce were superb; the flavors in the cubed carrots and turnips vibrant; and the mushrooms were truly phenomenal. In another corner, the rectangles of butternut squash topped with stringy curls of multicolored root vegetables were downright festive: like little packages topped with ribbons.
We ate our desserts in threes. I had the trio of sorbet, Brandy, the three flavors of Crème Brulee, and the guys dug into a Banana Split with three unique flavors of ice cream, including strawberry balsamic. Not that we had room in our stomachs for any of this, but how could we resist?