Inside Italianissimo

Photos by Jeff Hobson

Mealtimes are celebrated in Italy to reflect on food and the company it’s shared with. No one appreciates this more than Kent Betts, owner and head chef of Italianissimo Ristorante. His family has nurtured this classic white-linen restaurant specializing in Italian cuisine since 1996. It’s a neighborhood favorite for handcrafted, finely-prepared cuisine, and people have followed Italianissimo from its original downtown Woodinville location to its Stallion Hill Center location that’s been home for the last 10 years. Crowds fill the restaurant. So does the clatter of silverware on plates and the chime of wine glasses being brought together. It’s the sound of people making time to enjoy a meal and the Betts family is at the heart of it.

“No shortcuts — the right way is the best way,” Betts describes his hands-on classic approach to food. He grew up in the dining community; his mother ran a restaurant for 20 years in South Dakota, where he started his craft at a young age. He’s not formally trained as a chef; his education was absorbing the complexities of running a dining establishment through years working at corporate restaurants. Having learned the fine art of food and business, he and his wife, Cindy, took the leap of buying Italianissimo, continuing a love of food and family into the next generation. Having a family restaurant that’s been around nearly two decades certainly is a sign of success.

“Everyone has their own separate role and expertise,” Cindy Betts said. They all have a niche where they excel, avoiding the proverbial challenge of too many cooks in the kitchen. Cindy handles the finances while daughter Caylee, owner of a design firm, develops the restaurant’s marketing. Kent’s son, Ryley, joins the chef in the kitchen. When he’s not being a student, he’s a pantry chef, working alongside the kitchen crew, preparing ingredients and learning the methods his father values so highly.

It’s not just Kent Betts’ passion for Northern Italian cuisine behind Italianissimo, but a respect toward ingredients. “I’m proud of our scratch kitchen,” he says, noting their 28-day dry age process for their steaks and notably their paper-thin slices of New York strip in their Carpaccio di Manzo. They source meat locally when possible, everything is butchered in-house, and they’ll periodically serve delicacies such as veal or exotic finds such as wild boar on special menus. Giving the feeling of home, Italianissimo has a tradition of Meatball Mondays and Sausage Fridays, where the meats are freshly ground, seasoned and blended for their weekly appearances. The menu is written in traditional Italian, but the flavors are comforting and familiar, down to their roasted chicken, fragrant with rosemary. Caylee remarks over the crispness of their Polla Dorato Alla Toscana: “The best chicken skin — ever!”

Italianissimo’s artisan methodology celebrates the art of the noodle — nine handmade pastas are on the menu. Whether it’s the soft gnocchi potato dumplings, or thin sheets of lasagna, fresh pasta is a unique texture not to be missed. The delicate quality can be appreciated in the Paglia e Fieno, or “hay and straw” pasta, a colorful mix of fresh spinach and egg noodles, gently tossed in a cream sauce with peas, mushrooms and pancetta.
The seafood menu offers fresh fish daily and they make sure to have favorites such as the petite Manilla clams for their classic Vongole e Asparagi, a tangle of linguine tossed with tomato and asparagus accompanying the clams’ savory ocean brine. Kent is especially fond of their appetizer, I salmoni affumacati, thin ribbons of perfectly smoked salmon curled into rosettes, finished with red onions and capers. Sourced from Gerard and Dominique, a local seafood smoker highly regarded across the country, the velvety texture of regional salmon combines with a classic taste of Italy.

A meal wouldn’t be complete without a bit of la dolce vita, the sweet life. The dessert menu includes classics such as tiramisu, made with house-brewed espresso. But don’t forget to try the gelato. A rich, Italian-style ice cream, it’s also a house specialty, made from scratch in the kitchen, delivered to one’s awaiting sweet tooth.

Italianissimo doesn’t make its own wine, but appreciates those who do make it. There’s a cellar containing an impressive 240 labels — the majority of wines are Italian — along with many local vintages. The wine flights offer local varieties; it’s an opportunity to sample the Pacific Northwest style. Popular Wine Wednesday events are food-and-wine pairings featuring a local winemaker and even a beer brewer or two.

This neighborly connection to the community drives the future of Italianissimo and the Betts family as they look toward expanding with The Station, a specialty pizzeria featuring hand-tossed dough and an emphasis on local ingredients. The flames of their 6-foot wood-fire oven are getting stoked; anticipating The Station’s opening before summer.

With another restaurant on the horizon, Kent Betts’ values remain unwavering. “It’s a craft artisan mentality from kitchen to bar,” he describes both places, and it’s the heart of a family that binds them. The two restaurants have different menus, but one item will be shared — the CDB, a unique savory-sweet pizza with prosciutto, poached pears and three cheeses. Its namesake and creator is daughter Caylee, upon her return from college, a creation of inspired flavors and a taste of home. Ingredients handled with care, served at a place built on family; there is no flavor more satisfying than that.

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