Whether it’s here in the news section or in the WSB Forums, food never fails to cook up a lively discussion. With that in mind, and his own interest in the subject, WSB contributing journalist Christopher Boffoli has been taking a behind-the-scenes look at some local restaurants, including the Luna Park business district’s 4-months-old Café Revò (WSB sponsor), and with a holiday weekend ahead, we wanted to share the video he put together – as well as the article that begins below. Before we get to that: Knowing we would be running this, we also checked with Café Revò’s Sofia Zadra Goff to see what’s in store for the 4th of July – she says they’ll be open at 11 am as usual, breakfast and frittata menu till 3, then dinner; planning to stay open till 11 unless it gets “really slow.” She says they’re suggesting also to customers that “people can come get food to go from Cafe Revo to take to the beach or picnic, or buy their favorite wines from us for their 4th of July events since we have our retail wine license.” Now, as a companion to the video story above, here’s Christopher’s report in text:
By Christopher Boffoli
WSB contributing journalist
The longer I live in the Pacific Northwest, the more it reinforces the extent to which I count myself fortunate to be living in one of the most interesting regions for food in the country. Still, as an East Coaster of Southern Italian descent, it is not always so easy to find many of the familiar foods and flavors of my childhood. The Italians and their “soul food” are here. Somewhere. You just have to work harder to find them. Their presence is not as well-defined as, say, the Nordic or Asian communities in Seattle. For every bright star like Salumi or Via Tribunali, it seems there are many more watered-down red-sauce joints that pass themselves off as Italian but are just a copy of something that wasn’t very authentic to begin with.
So it is usually with some trepidation that I approach new “Italian” restaurants in Seattle and my recent decision to take a closer look at Café Revò was no exception. And that is one of the first topics I brought up when I sat down recently with Sofia Zadra Goff, who, along with her husband Sean Goff, opened their restaurant on Avalon in the Luna Park business district last February. I wondered if it was really possible to open an Italian restaurant with any kind of authenticity and still have it succeed or if the menu needs to cater to people’s misperceptions. The answer isn’t so simple. But as I’d discover, Café Revò proves that it is possible to design a restaurant menu their own way, with both the authentic and familiar favorites, and just execute it so well that you don’t care whether or not it is precisely authentic.
West Seattle’s Café Revò is the result of an old idea and a path that is at least a century long. Sofia Zadra Goff is a fourth-generation West Seattlite whose ancestors immigrated to Washington State more than a hundred years ago. She is part of a large Italian family with at least sixty family members here in Seattle and strong connections with an extended family back in her ancestral home, the town of Revò in the far north of Italy.
Sean and Sofia live in Arbor Heights and have other strong connections to West Seattle. When they saw the location on Craigslist, it seemed a perfect fit. “We love West Seattle, so we knew that we wanted our restaurant to be here,” she said. As soon as we looked at the location we knew it would make a perfect restaurant.” The space now occupied by Café Revò had formerly been Murphy’s Furniture and Upholstery (now in Pioneer Square) and for decades before that Sea-Way Marine (here’s a photo of one of its industrial incarnations):
Sofia says, “It was basically a garage that had been turned into a furniture store. Whenever you do a build-out you’re conditioned to expect a certain number of surprises during the course of the renovation. But we encountered even more than we anticipated.”
The building required completely new wiring and plumbing. The undertaking was also complicated by the process of acquiring permits for a space that had never before been used as a restaurant. The Goffs were in the space starting in June 2008. They began construction in earnest in September. And then they opened in February 2009. She adds, “It took longer than we thought but it was worth the wait.”
Sofia says, “My husband Sean and I had been talking about opening a restaurant for as long as I knew him and he had been thinking about it even before we met. He has been a chef in the Seattle area for about 25 years with a strong focus on Northern Italian cuisine. So it just seemed fitting that we’d do something that would be a tribute to my family and the town of Revò, Italy.”
Sofia’s family is from the picturesque town of Revò (pronounced rev-VOH), which is tucked into the Valley of Non in the Italian Alps, surrounded by spectacular views of the Dolomite mountains. This part of Italy was, until 1918, part of Austria and its cuisine still bears remnants of Germanic influences. Many in the region still classify themselves as Tyrolean. Revò is similar in climate and topography to that of Leavenworth, Washington, and the town sits on the same latitude as Mt. St. Helens. Like Washington, Revò produces excellent apples. Its Golden Delicious crop is the region’s most important export and is shipped as far away as Canada. They also produce from long-cultivated vines an excellent wine varietal called Grapello as well as grappa, a distilled spirit made from the seeds and stems of grapes. Though the Grapello grape is important enough to have its leaves on the town seal, the wine (always consumed fresh and never aged) is not exported.
As for the food: Much of what Americans think of as Italian food is strongly influenced by tomato sauce-heavy Southern Italy. But the cuisine of Northern Italy is much different. Tomatoes were still fairly rare in Revò around the time it was annexed by Italy. Tomatoes were a New World food and early on were thought to be poisonous and never really caught on in the North. “Sean made no fewer than six trips back to Revò to learn intensively about the local cuisine. He worked very closely with my relatives and many others in the town in order to learn very carefully about the ingredients and cooking techniques.”
When they were assembling the menu, freshness was of principal importance. Everything served at Café Revò is made in-house. Nothing is pre-packaged. All of the sauces and stocks are made from scratch. But while the menu at Revò features dishes like lasagna, puttanesca and risotto that are probably as good as any Italian restaurant where freshness and passion are among the ingredients, what distinguishes them are the signature dishes that are the most faithful to the region for which their menu pays tribute.
Sofia explains: “I have found that it is so great to have a restaurant because we can put all of the foods we love on the menu. And I feel like my whole family is in the restaurant all the time.”
Sofia said it was clear early on that one of the signature dishes they had to have on the menu was a soup called canederli. She said that when she and her cousins got together everyone always spoke longingly about their own grandmother’s canederli but that they had never seen any restaurant in the US with it on the menu. It is a soup based on bread dumplings that are made with salami, prosciutto and cheese simmered in a chicken stock. It is featured on both the lunch and dinner menus at Revò.
Another signature dish is the pappardelle al ragú Bolognese, which features a rich sauce based more on meat stocks than tomatoes. There is also the polenta con tonco which also has a savory sauce made with a pork tenderloin gravy. Sofia says, “Polenta is a staple of life in Revò, Italy and had been for centuries. My father jokes that my grandmother would never believe how polenta has become a fancy food dish in restaurants now because back in Italy it was peasant food. They’d make it in the morning and have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They’d wrap it up and carry it out into the fields with them. That’s what they lived on.” Polenta is traditionally made in a large copper pot and stirred with a large wooden paddle called a glava. The polenta at Café Revò is served “dura” or firm-textured, and is ready when one can let go of the glava and it stands straight up in the pot. “The polenta we serve is made exactly the same way my grandmother made it. She and the other Nonnas back in Revò, Italy taught Sean how to make it.”
While their signature items would most likely give Sean and Sofia credibility with even the most discerning Tyrolean diners of the old school, they chose not to ignore the fact that their restaurant is in Seattle. “One of the questions that I get asked most frequently by customers about our menu is why we have so many different fresh seafood items if we’re a Northern Italian restaurant. Well, I can’t think of anything that is more Northern Italian than people cooking with what they have available to them locally. Italians of every region cook with what they can get their hands on. We’re in Seattle so Sean is always going to have things on the menu that are reflective of this area.”
Like everything else on the menu, the desserts at Café Revò are all made from scratch. One exception is the ice cream, which is sourced from Husky Deli – a longtime favorite of the owners. The folks at Husky also incorporate the restaurant’s own tiramisu into a custom ice-cream flavor.
Sean, Sofia, her sister Maria and staff member Kendra all have a hand in making the desserts. Sofia says, “It’s a very Italian thing to have family and friends all come together and cook together with all of the passion behind the food. So it is an exciting thing for us.” Chef Sean makes the panna cotta. Maria makes the tiramisu. Sofia makes her nonna’s biscotti. And Kendra, who has Southern Italian heritage, makes one of the dessert items that I was particularly excited to see: the cannoli. These fried pastry shells filled with sweetened, flavored ricotta cheese are ubiquitous in Italian neighborhoods in the East. But good cannoli are a challenge to find in Seattle.Abbondanza in Morgan Junction has their version. Tom Douglas serves his downtown at his pizzeria, Serious Pie. None quite capture the authentic texture and flavor quite like the cannoli at Café Revò. In fact, Chef Sean told me about an unconventional secret ingredient they use to make the flavor profile more accurate. But I promised not to reveal it. When it comes to a good cannoli, words are wholly inadequate anyway. The sensory experience of eating one is always better.
And then there is the issue of the tiramisu. In Italy, tiramisu is not a dessert at all but an afternoon snack. Tira mi su means literally “Pick me up,” and since its origins in the late 1960s, Italians have been scarfing it down in mid-afternoon along with requisite hits of strong espresso. While even the most prosaic tiramisu can be delightful, it has also become cliché. Perhaps in the spirit of emulating the cuisine of the Italians, maybe we could eat it in the same manner as they do. It is not the only Italian thing that Americans have time-shifted. When Americans order cappuccinos in the late afternoon while visiting Italy, the Italians laugh as they believe that drinking too much milk in your coffee so late in the day will slow you down. The baristi will usually automatically serve you a glass of water with a cappuccino ordered past noon.
Then again, maybe it is in keeping with the culture of America to co-opt what we like and adapt it to suit our own preferences. The tiramisu at Café Revò (with its zabaglione custard with just a hint of Marsala wine and mascarpone cream layered with savoiardi soaked in coffee liqueur) is among the best I have had anywhere including in Italy. So perhaps it is in keeping with the handful of other dishes on the menu at Revò that don’t fit within the catechism of Northern Italian cuisine that if you produce something of remarkable quality, the question of whether or not it fits becomes moot. You pick up the fork asking “why?” And put it down asking “why not?”
Café Revò’s hours and location can all be found at caferevo.com. Look for ongoing West Seattle restaurant coverage here at WSB — watch our West Seattle Restaurants archive!