The Cellar a hidden gem in North Capitol Hill

It is not easily visible from 10th Avenue East, so if no one told you The Cellar Bistro was a half block off 10th on East Miller Street, you might never know. An Italian restaurant of cozy intimacy and great food, The Cellar is one of those places on Capitol Hill that is well worth the time it takes to find it.

The restaurant, directly under the newly opened Tidbit Bistro, is broken into several small seating areas set up to seat less than 20 people each, giving the place a cozy intimacy. The way to our table was through several exposed-brick archways, and we could see the various Italian wall decorations on the red walls.

Decoration ranges from tourist-bureau quality photographs of various parts of Italy, to Italo-American entertainers to kitsch. A large painting on black velvet of Marlon Brando in one of the sections presents him as The Godfather. I rather preferred the alluring photographs of a young Sophia Loren.

As we were seated the waitress, Bridget, looked at us with dawning recognition.

"I see you guys all the time at the Joe Bar," she said. Our reputations preceded us, but little did she know that this evening we were the Capitol Hill Times dinner squad.

Quiet jazz filled the air as chosen by Bridget, a jazz vocalist studying at Cornish College of the Arts. We were impressed by the white table cloths on all of the tables, and the genuine white cloth napkins. There is something about real cloth napkins that adds a touch of style to any atmosphere.

This restaurant, however, does not need to lean heavily on atmosphere for its charm. The food does that.

Before eating, however, we started with the house specialty, pomegranate martinis. I am normally a straight-up, two olives, gin martini drinker, but it is the house specialty, and we both agreed after just a couple of sips that it would be an easy thing to split a pitcher of these martinis, served in stem glasses. After a few more sips we agreed that a whole pitcher of these pleasant little cocktails might not be a wise idea.

My companion had the house special lasagna ($14) and I had the penne pasta chicken ($15), both of which come with a choice of two salads or soup. We chose one of each of the salads, a house salad and a Caesar.

Both salads were served cool and crisp, with excellent flavor. Unlike many places, the salads were not overdressed so that the flavors of the lettuce, tomato, olive and sunflower seeds did not drown, Titanic-like, in an ocean of dressing. They were perfect. As were the slices of artisan bread presented in a basket with a small bowl of herbed olive oil for dipping. Yum.

The lasagna arrived in a generous square with three sauces; a red meat sauce, white cream sauce, and green garlic-herb sauce. The sauces were place on the lasagna, with the cream sauce in a stripe across the center, so the red, green and white colors evoked the Italian flag.

"Oh my God," whispered my companion, with his mouth full. "This is wonderful!" He immediately set up a defensive perimeter around his plate. It took some persuasion to get him to share even a few forkfuls. He was right, though, it was the best lasagna I have had since I was in Italy. Maybe better.

My penne pasta chicken, with the familiar tube-style pasta, was as good. I did not envy him at all. The pasta was delightfully al dente and the vegetables were crisp. The sauce complemented the flavors, rather than covering them up. This is a dish I make at home, but not quite this well.

"Would you like to see a dessert menu?" Bridget asked.

Yes, we agreed, having joined the clean plate club and feeling a bit piggy. We would look at it, but that is all we could do. Red velvet cake or tiramisu was just out of the question.

"You got the two most popular things on the menu," said Ken Slack, co-owner of the restaurant with his wife Yvonne Ingalls, who described the cuisine as northern Italian regional cooking.

The previous restaurant in the space was called Spaghetti Red's when they took over three years ago. Those with a long memory may recall its previous life as The Austrian.

"We were looking for a neighborhood restaurant where we could just do dinners six nights a week," Slack said. "We just kind of transitioned it from Spaghetti Red's. We wanted to make a higher commitment to food, wine and service."

If there is anything working against the restaurant, it is the location. Though they are right in the mix of retail, mostly restaurants, around the intersection, they are just out of sight, not easily visible to drivers or even bus riders.

"Our biggest problem is the location," Slack conceded.

He said the kitchen area has very little storage, no walk-in refrigerator and a freezer about the size of anyone's home freezer. But this is easily turned into something positive The couple goes shopping two or three times a week to pick up fresh ingredients.

"That's what we're actually about," he said.

You can find The Cellar Bistro at 2355 10th Ave. E. Call 709-8744 or go to for directions.
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