photo credit: Chona Kasinger
Updated December 23rd, 2021
Sometimes, friends just know what you require in the moment. They make up an “emergency” to rescue you from a bad date, they laugh at your jokes when they know you need a win, and take the reins planning your birthday party—cake and all. Sure, maybe they accidentally leave the cake in their car for two hours, which happens to be made of ice cream. The cake, not the car.
San Fermo is exactly like that pal who anticipates your needs and just acts on them. Only in this case, what you need is a reliable venue for a date night. And hopefully not a situation where you’d need that pal to text you about a rare fossil they found in your backyard that requires you to skip dinner and report to the Burke Museum post-haste.
Ambience is (almost) everything with this Italian restaurant on Ballard Ave. It’s located inside the rickety shell of a historic home, preserved since the 1800s and sandwiched on the main drag among the art galleries, boutiques, and Patagonia store. Like any good old colonial home, there’s a vine-covered, tree-shaded wraparound porch—and it’s exactly where you should be eating appetizers and drinking wine. On the inside, it has a dimly-lit, shiplap-enveloped swagger that’s perfect for a romantic outing over smoky brown liquor cocktails and big bowls of pasta.
Speaking of, the homemade pastas are all worthy of your time and stomach real estate, from the spaghetti bolognese to a guanciale-studded carbonara that’s easily one of the best we’ve ever had. The farinata is another of our favorite things here—it’s a grilled chickpea flatbread served with cold tomato confit, olive oil, and spreadable cheese that tastes like burrata and sunshine. For dessert, their affogatos make us sad we can’t always drop a casual scoop of D’Ambrosio gelato in our morning coffee. Or can we?
The only drawback is, just like your buddy who always means well, some of the dishes occasionally need adjustments. The spaghetti in the bolognese is typically overcooked, the caesar salad could use less cheese and more black pepper, and when it’s on the menu, the creamy, bacony bucatini alla gricia has to be consumed at warp speed to avoid the fat separating from the rest of the sauce. That said, it tastes so good that you’re probably going to want to eat it quickly anyway.
On a night when the restaurant-experience gods are smiling down upon you, San Fermo easily is one of the best date night spots in Seattle. The setting—in the thick of the Ballard Ave. hustle on the outside while serene on the inside—is perfect, and the upscale Italian food is meant for matchmaking. The sum of San Fermo’s parts is so great that we easily forgive the minor mistakes. Plus, their ice cream is still frozen, so they could teach your friend a thing or two.
This should hit your table. It’s a salted grilled flatbread made with chickpeas and served with a sweet tomato confit and housemade cagliata, which is what would happen if ricotta and burrata had a child, and then doused the child in olive oil. A bite slathered with both spreads is fantastic, and necessary as the flatbread itself trends on the dryer side.
A solid plate of leaves. The red wine-soaked croutons have this deep richness that we love with the basic, not-too-creamy, not-too-oily caesar dressing clinging to them. But the mountainous amount of grated cheese on this thing is a little excessive, and we wish we had some black pepper to crack on top for heat.
Saffron Spaghetti Bolognese
San Fermo’s bolognese is decadent, comforting, and even worth eating outside on a hot summer night. Not to mention the saffron infused in the pasta adds a subtle earthy nuance. It’s a shame that the spaghetti is often so overcooked that it snaps like K’Nex pieces mid-twirl, but that’s not keeping us from ordering it again.
If you can catch one when it’s on the menu, any pasta at San Fermo involving rendered pork fat is a slam dunk. This carbonara is in the running for best-in-town—the creamy egg yolk is perfectly seasoned and emulsified, there’s a bright burst of tasty cured salt in each bite of guanciale, and the firm ridges on the mafaldine add great texture. One order of bolognese and one order of carbonara shared between two people is always our move here.
With tomato, guanciale, a kick from red pepper flakes, translucent red onion, and a fresh pile of parm on top, this is better than a hug from someone you enjoy hugging.
Bucatini Alla Gricia
This bucatini with guanciale, red onions, leeks, black pepper, and pecorino is good, but the longer it takes for you to eat, the more the oil separates from the sauce, which ends up being too greasy.
Yes, please. This is just pistachio gelato, a shot of espresso, and some biscotti, but the simple coffee-soaked cookie and gelato in the same bite is what you want for dessert.