By Don and Peg Doman
As we waited in the lobby of the Sheraton Tacoma Hotel, Peg and I enjoyed a comfortable sofa and admired the view inside the functional but friendly entrance, waiting room, and conversation areas. Peg recalled interviewing Cab Calloway there in the mid-1980s. "He was shorter than I expected, but I think most men were shorter in those days (the 1930s when Cab was a household word)." Cab was always elegant and would still look at home sitting in the lobby at the Sheraton.
We were soon welcomed by Chef James "Jim" P. Barbara. He met us in the lobby to accompany us up to the the restaurant. Access to the restaurant floor is unavailable except during hours of service for Altezzo and the Vertigo Lounge. Both the restaurant and the lounge occupy the 26th floor and as such command excellent views of downtown Tacoma, the waterways, and the surrounding hillsides. I love the view up the river valley to Mount Rainier, the ballerina bridge, the Thea Foss Waterway, the Convention Center, and Holy Rosary Church (where we were married and Peg went to grade school).
Looking out the windows is half the fun of visiting Altezzo . . . okay, maybe not half, but the views are spectacular. No matter where you sit in the restaurant you have a very nice view of downtown Tacoma. As Peg and I chatted with Chef Jim it was easy to let our eyes wander and enjoy watching the boats on Thea Foss, the coming rain clouds, and the many green spaces everywhere.
Jim excused himself to prepare our appetizers, the same ones that will be served at Zoobilee on July 15, 2005. He also mentioned that he was preparing roast duck for us to try.
Right after Chef Jim went to the kitchen, Fauna Flores, the restaurant manager, joined us at the table. One of the joys of our adventures throughout the Pacific Northwest is talking to the people who make our entertainment possible.
Fauna is a recent addition to Altezzo. Her background is "fine dining" in the Chicago area. Fauna worked in the restaurant business all through college, first as a waitperson and bartender. She worked at TGI Fridays in Bloomington and Lombard, a local Italian restaurant/sports bar in Orland Park, and Magnum's Steak and Face's Night Club in Chicago. Magnum's Steak and Face's Night Club was upper scale. Fauna says, "The establishments were housed in the same building with banquet rooms on the second and third levels. On the weekends, they opened the large wooden sliding glass doors between the club and the restaurant turning the whole area into a club. We could house 1000 people in the whole establishment. The steak house was a fine dining restaurant."
In November of 1999, Fauna took her first manager position working under Chef Michael Foley in his restaurant, Printers Row. Printers Row was located on the corner of Harrison and Dearborn in the heart of the historic Printers Row District of the South Loop in downtown Chicago. She said, "I worked there for almost 2 years in management."
Fauna came from Chicago to visit a friend and they went all over the area but it was cloudy and she never saw Mount Rainier. Then one day she was getting on the freeway and looked up and there it was. "I called my husband and told him, it's huge and covered with snow." In Chicago, there are skyscrapers and outside Chicago there are cornfields . . . but no mountains.
After deciding to relocate to the Northwest, Fauna was hired as a Manager at Duke's Chowderhouse on Lake Union in Seattle. Just a short time later she was offered the position of manager at the Sheraton. She should do well here in Tacoma. Besides her ready smile, and management qualities, two of our ethnic populations should love her. She was a Russian linguist while in the military, and her degree is in Spanish.
Fine dining is not new to her family. Her husband, Antonio, is a manager at The Melting Pot, another Zoobilee participant. Her husband, by the way is a saint. Fauna (true to the name) loves animals. She saves and protects dogs and cats. She fights for causes she believes in. It sounds like it's a joy for her. She would rather spend her money on saving animals than buying clothes.
Chef Jim returned with a plate of appetizers, brushetta. There were six slices of crostinis covered with chopped fresh vegetables.
There were two different toppings represented by the crostinis. One was topped with pine nuts (one of my favorite additions to Italian food) and a fairly simple mixture of fresh flavors. The second offering had more complicated flavors and featured eggplant.
The crostini were crusty as the name implies and still soft and chewy inside the crust. Although both Peg and I prefered the more complicated eggplant choice, I think with a couple glasses of wine it might take a while longer to make a determination. And even if we didn't change our minds, just tasting and thinking about the selection as we looked out the window would be a great way to spend an afternoon or evening.
Basicly, anything that starts off with garlic, red onions, and olive oil is going to be good. The other touches that Chef Jim added finshed off the bruschetta perfectly.
Chef Jim comes from an Italian family in New Jersey and learned to cook early. He remembers, at age five, attempting to reheat some turkey stuffing in a blue Tupperware bowl by setting it on the burner and turning it on. His unsupervised culinary adventure reminds me of when I nearly set fire to our kitchen when I was in the second or third grade. I was cooking bacon and left the frying pan on the burner. The flames climped up the wall and the curtains.
Jim didn't learn cooking from his mother (who wasn't a very good cook), but rather his grandmother and his great-grandmother. "I could cook better than my mother by the time I was twelve and better than my grandmother by eighteen, but I never got better than my great grandmother. She made her own pasta and doughballs with edible flowers," Jim revealed. If it's true that he never got better that his grandmother, I bet there would be a long, long line waiting for her Italian dishes today. I think, however, that Jim was being kind.
At age nine Jim went to the neighborhood Italian restaurant and asked if they needed help. They put him to work. He made a penny for each pizza box he folded and put together. He worked up to being dishwasher and bus boy.
In addition to making pizza boxes and cooking family recipes, Jim also worked at his uncle's bakery, so he has not only a history of Italian cooking, but baking as well.
Jim graduated from his Culinary Arts School in Philadelphia and also spent time in the navy. He must have had some happy shipmates. In addition to making food that tastes great, he is also expert in reducing food overhead costs, but never to the detriment of the dining experience. Once, when faced with a head chef who wanted every bit of food used, including cauliflower florets for soup, Jim explained that florets become bitter the longer they are cooked. It's good to reduce costs, but it's even better to know your foods first and what you can do with them.
When cooking on his own, Jim likes Asian cooking. Good Asian cooking is the same as good Italian cooking in that they both start with the simple basics of fresh vegetables and good knowledge of combining that with herbs and spices.
After we finished our bruschetta, Jim served his Duck Boscaiola. It was beautiful. It was succulent. It was wonderful. Peg was really surprised and said, "I'm used to bony ducks with little shards of meat." The duck recipe was created by Jim in 1993.
The duck was served over risotto with leeks, wild rice, cranberries and Shitake mushrooms. This was only the second time Peg and I have enjoyed risotto. I mean really enjoyed risotto. It must take skill or something to deliver great risotto. Who would have thought? The other risotto we enjoyed came recently from Salty's At Redondo Beach by Chef Gabriel Cabrera of Mexican heritage.
When Jim brought out the duck it looked like a small baked ham. I love baked ham with various glazes. The skin of the duck was covered with a glaze that seemed almost black, but in reality was a deep, deep burgundy. The demi-glace was perfect and was a nice match for the risotto. The cranberries were so plump and sweet, I thought perhaps they had been soaked in wine prior to cooking, but Jim assured me they were cooked with the rest of the risotto and wild rice.
Jim likes to use ingredients that match well with the entree. Wild rice, cranberries and duck work for me. The duck meat was dark and moist. A hearty wine with the duck would be perfect. Altezzo has a good wine selection. Perhaps, a Burgundy, a Pinot Noir, or Merlot would go nicely.
Along with his duck recipe, Jim has introduced Piedmontese beef (featuring very tender steaks) to the menu. Piedmontese is an ancient Italian breed of cattle, now raised in Montana. Jim has also contracted with a local gelato maker who delivers gelato according to Jim's recipe and tastes.
Jim was hired about six months ago and Fauna was hired three weeks later. Jim has been in the restaurant business for 34 years. Fauna has never worked at a hotel restaurant before, but they are a good team. Fauna says, "Jim is easy to work with. He's relaxed and not up-tight like some chefs." Jim and Fauna plan and work together, well. She jokes about how some people chain smoke. She drinks coffee and leaves her cups here and there, while picking up a new one with hot coffee.
They both love Tacoma. She spends time with her pets, goes for walks on the waterfront, reads, and exercises. Jim is looking for a house on Hilltop to buy where he can have a small garden. He will raise flowers . . . edible flowers. He once managed an apple orchard in Yakima for a year when a friend became ill and worked at Hood River resort for eight years.
Fauna showed us the Vertigo Lounge which continues the wonderful Penthouse-style view (North) over the city. The lounge has an intimate feel. It's not huge (sits 18) , but seems larger than it is because of the windows forming the walls on two sides. A small balcony allows visitors a chance to enjoy a refreshing look at the skyline . . . and I wonder if the wind there makes Fauna homesick sometimes for Chicago.
Neither Fauna nor Jim understand why people in Seattle sometimes look down their noses at Tacoma. They are embracing the Tacoma community and enjoying it, but also think that Altezzo Ristorante gets overlooked in Tacoma. This does seem a little strange when actually from the windows of the Sheraton, Altezzo overlooks much of downtown Tacoma.
With a concerned chef and determined manager, I think Altezzo has a bright future on the horizon.
Atop the Sheraton Tacoma Hotel
1320 Broadway Plaza
Tacoma, Washington 98402
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