One Dish: Philly Comes to Belltown
There are hotdog carts all over Belltown, their steaming $5 Polish specials (with cream cheese at no extra charge) offering late-night sustenance to the tired, the poor, the hungry at the exits of clubs. Joe Jeannot once had the lock on this niche of glassy-eyed, danced-out twenty-somethings; he owned a string of carts on Second, First and Western avenues before he went legit and opened a barbecue joint on Westlake, Slo Joe's, and found out how tough it is to run a real restaurant; he's now tending bar at Toulouse Petit.
There are still plenty of sidewalk hotdog vendors, and then there's Al Calozzi, whose cart once offered an alternative, Philly cheesesteaks, only to find the health department's thermometer-wielding inspectors on his case. But Al's had longer lines because, after all, you can only eat so many cream-cheese-smeared tube steaks before your body cries out for beef.
To the rescue, a year ago, came Jennifer and Steve Good, the folks who own Queen City Grill and its First-Avenue neighbor, the Frontier Room. As well as Belltown Billiards, the den of 8-Ball propinquity lodged in the building's basement, which needed a chef for its kitchen lest its pool-playing, Jaeger-shooting patrons wander off the premises.
And the next thing you know, Big Al is cooking for money. Al Calozzi's Italian Kitchen was all cued up, sending plates of chicken piccata and vodka rigatoni across the passe and foil-wrapped cheese steaks out the blazing neon window on the Blanchard slope.
Calozzi, a former martial arts instructor, sounds like he's part of the cast of Jersey Shore. He grew up in an Italian restaurant across the river from Philadelphia, where he learned to make its signature dish, Philly cheesesteak. 'êI was about 10 years old,'ê he says. "My uncle Anthony takes me into the kitchen and stands me on a milk crate. He says, 'Now watch, this is how it'ês done.' And shows me how to cook cheesesteak. To me that was just natural. I mean my whole family has always been passionate about food."
You sense the passion as Calozzi slaps a couple of slabs of frozen top round on the grill, seasons it, and starts chopping it with twin metal spatulas. He thwacks and turns, flips and chops some more as the meat fries in the rendered fat. (There's a culinary word for this: it's called frizzling.) A handful of onions, no peppers unless you ask, and more grilling.
When the meat resembles well-done hamburger, Calozzi slices an Italian roll and slathers it with the critical ingredient, Cheez Whiz. Emulsified, stabilized, colorized, it's the topping of choice (says Calozzi, says The New York Times) and scoops everything into the waiting maw of cheese-dripping bread. It's like eating spaghetti sauce without tomatoes or basil; it's like eating a cheeseburger without the ketchup, mustard or pickles.
Colozzi's cheesesteak is squarely in the tradition of guilty pleasures, like the lawnmower beer consumed by elite winemakers, like reading the New Yorker for its cartoons. Though it's tasty, the flavors aren't particularly subtle or challenging, the texture is gooey (you get a big wad of napkins), but the price is surely right, at $8. You want peppers with that? Just ask. You want hot sauce? It's over on the condiment counter. People line up, by the dozens every night.
If you go: Belltown Billiards, 90 Blanchard St., Seattle, 206-420-3146. Open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.