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By way of Seattle, a simple Italian classic

At a time when most American-born chefs come out of cooking school, Scott Carsberg embodies the old-fashioned route we associate with Europeans: He started working as a busboy at 14 and soon had a job in a ritzy establishment; cooked with great chefs, first back East and then in Europe; and finally came home to Seattle, where he fell in love and, 14 years ago, boldly and naively opened his restaurant, Lampreia, which is often considered the best in the city.

At 41, Carsberg has been in the restaurant business more than 25 years. He is brash (I was told he was a "holy terror"), incisive and intelligent. He quotes his mother at least once in every extended conversation (more on that later). His language is what used to be called colorful.

His food is the same _ gorgeous _ and perfectly embodied by a dessert he calls Balzano apple cake, a classic northern Italian peasant cake with fabulous flavors that belie its simplicity. This could be said of much of the food at Lampreia: It is simple, but the flavors are clean, classic and powerful. Think bluefin tuna with hints of citrus; morel mushroom with zucchini; winter squash soup with vanilla-scented dumplings.

It is the food you expect from Carsberg, whose strongest culinary chops come from northern Italy, and who is, after all, a working-class kid. A year after he began working as a busboy, his mother _ who runs a hip divey bar, the Night Lite, a few blocks from Lampreia _ told him that he had better find something he enjoyed doing because "you'll be doing it for the rest of your life."

"She's a tough lady, my mom," Carsberg said. "She was sitting there, smoking a cigarette, and saying, "No one is going to give you anything, and I'm sure as hell not.' Then she told me to get ready to go to school; she had no time to mess around. It seemed mean at the time, but she knew what I needed to hear."

A series of restaurant jobs followed, including a stint on an Alaskan fishing boat (seemingly requisite for would-be chefs in the Pacific Northwest). While in high school, he was an intern at the restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel in Seattle, and by the time he was 19 he knew the basics of classic French cuisine and had familiarized himself with the cookbooks of contemporary French chefs such as Michel Guerard and Roger Verge.

After the Four Seasons, he talked his way into a job at Le Pavillon in Washington, D.C.; in 1984 he became sous chef for Gunter Seeger, who was opening Seeger's, which was to become the best-known restaurant in Atlanta. Seeger's food is remarkably clean, a kind of German-accented northern Italian cuisine; clearly this rubbed off on Carsberg.

A year later, Andreas Hellrigl, the Italian chef who was running Palio in New York, sent Carsberg _ then 21 _ to work in his Michelin one-star restaurant, Villa Mozart, in the Alto Adige region of Italy. After one year, Carsberg was running it.

Seeger and Hellrigl, who died in 1993, had similar styles. But Carsberg singles out the cooking at Villa Mozart: "It was exactly the food I wanted to cook, warm food, food with love. I knew this was how I'd be cooking in my own restaurant some day."

Villa Mozart drew from the simple, regional food surrounding it, and the Balzano apple cake was a local dish, barely adapted before being put into service as an elegant dessert. "We changed the way it looks, that's really about it," Carsberg said. "And we served it with caramel ice cream."

Nearly 20 years later, the cake, which is like a perfect clafoutis, is on the menu at Lampreia. (It is also in Carsberg's online cookbook, written with Hillel Cooperman, called All About Apples; the Web site is www.tastingmenu.com.)

After about six years working and eating in Italy and Germany, Carsberg moved back to Seattle. There he met his future wife, Hyun Joo Paek. Together they opened Lampreia, maxing out their credit cards, working for no money, establishing a restaurant the old-fashioned way.

"It was all based on passion," he said.

"You can't teach that. We were young and dumb, and it was what we wanted to do. We were afraid to take other people's money, but we made it work. Like my mom said, we just chipped away at the rock."

Lampreia has a distinctive personality, and the couple did much of the work themselves. Eating there has the kind of feel that can come only when a chef dominates every detail.

Carsberg's schedule is something like this: He arrives at the restaurant at 8:30 a.m. to check on incoming ingredients and begin prep; he works steadily into the afternoon, at which point he takes a break for errands and sometimes a rest. He returns to the restaurant and cooks every night, with a sous chef, a pastry chef and a dishwasher sharing the small, semiopen kitchen.

He produces predominantly Italian dishes that are slightly eclectic yet immediately accessible, like the apple cake.

Carsberg does not plan on more globe-trotting to check out the latest food trends. He said he had neither the time nor the money. Rather, he said, he plans to stick with what he knows.

"It's corny, but I like the best ingredients cooked simply, with intensity," he said.

"I have as much respect for a potato as I do for a lobster. I don't want to be a phony and put weird things on the plate just to be different."

Balzano Apple Cake

1 stick butter (4 ounces), plus more for greasing pan

{ cup flour, plus more for pan

2 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean

5 Granny Smith apples

2 teaspoons baking powder

{ cup milk at room temperature

Powdered sugar

Time: 1\ hours.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Line 8-inch-square pan with foil, then smear with thick layer of butter. Dust with flour; turn pan over and tap lightly to remove excess flour.

Melt butter in small saucepan. Set aside.

Beat together eggs and half of sugar in a bowl. Continue to beat while slowly adding remaining sugar until thick; it should form a ribbon when dropped from spoon.

Split vanilla bean in two lengthwise.

Scrape seeds into the egg-sugar batter and add pod to melted butter.

Peel, quarter and core apples, then trim ends and slice thinly.

Remove vanilla pod from butter and stir butter into sugar-egg batter. Combine { cup flour and baking powder, then stir it into batter alternately with milk.

Stir in apples, coating every piece with batter. Pour batter into pan, using fingers to pat top evenly.

Bake for 25 minutes, then rotate the pan; bake for about 25 minutes more, until cake pulls away from pan and is brown on top; a thin-bladed knife inserted into the center will come out clean when it is done.

Cool 30 minutes, then cut lengthwise and sprinkle slices with powdered sugar.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

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