Upon walking into the modestly sized dining room at Spinasse (pronounced “Spee-NAH-say”), near the fashionable, gastronomically gifted 12th Avenue and Pike Street stretch of Capitol Hill, I felt like I’d been whisked away to an old Italian farmhouse—delicate lace curtains hang in the front windows, rough-hewn beams bear the soaring ceiling’s burden, and mismatched wood and marble countertops suggest a sense of history and an appreciation for the charms of imperfection. Creamy light flatters, and heavy, hand-built trestle tables—the long, dark, knotty sort that imply generations of suppers and oceans of wine have been consumed at them—fill the compact space. It’s easy to imagine Spinasse, the northern Italian restaurant opened by local pasta guru Justin Neidermeyer in August, has been serving platters laden with gossamer hand-formed ravioli since my grandmother was a newlywed.
Far from it.
Spinasse is one of Seattle’s latest “it” openings, a restaurant so hotly anticipated by fervent foodies that on one of my two visits—just four weeks after its opening—two food writers and a well-known local chef were in the house (and that’s only accounting for those I recognized). It’s also the latest example of a sea change in the sort of restaurants popping up all over our fair city. Like so many of the most-talked-about openings this year and last—How to Cook a Wolf, The Corson Building, Spring Hill—it’s a restaurant borne not from its owners’ latest market research on what concept might be hot right now, but rather of each chef’s quest for personal expression. It wasn’t always so: Remember the days when Seattleites could muster excitement over a Cheesecake Factory opening? This year, a Hard Rock Café is slated to open downtown, and nobody seems to care. It’s official: The Zeitgeist has shifted, and the hottest new restaurants in town are also the ones with the most soul.
Although his restaurant is new, Neidermeyer is no stranger to zealous food-loving locals. Many got their first tastes of his pastas at Café Juanita, where he was a member of owner/chef Holly Smith’s opening crew in 2000. He then departed for Italy to learn from the late legendary Piedmont pasta maker Cinto Albarello, returning stateside to make pastas and sell them at the Ballard farmers’ market. Foodie Web sites such as Chowhound and Egullet soon pinged with his fans’ colorful praise: “You’ve gotta taste this guy’s pasta. It’s out of this world.” His reputation grew through word of mouth and on the Web, ultimately earning him his current cult status. And then the big boys of the food press took notice: In July 2007, Neidermeyer was heralded in a Food & Wine article written by Seattle’s Michael Hebb (of One Pot and Pike Street Fish Fry), who called his pasta “insanely perfect.”
Now, at Spinasse, he’s created an artisan utopia, a place large enough to feel robust and familial during peak hours, but small enough that the fastidious chef can keep up with demand without sacrificing quality.
I’d anticipated my first dinner at Spinasse for weeks—I’d talked up the chef and his reputed pasta brilliance to my dinner dates, recounting the romantic details I’d read over the years (like how he’d stay up late in his loft above Capitol Hill’s Via Tribunali, honing his pasta-making skills and serving secret suppers to insiders—yours truly not included). By the time I walked into Spinasse for the first time, I was more familiar with Neidermeyer’s biography than that of my daughter’s school teacher. But I’d also been—without realizing it—drinking the Kool-Aid.
And it’s a good thing I had. On this night we endured a 45-minute stretch between our first and second courses. Truth be told, for a while we were enjoying ourselves, sipping a pleasingly dry Germano Dolcetto (at $34/bottle, it’s just one of several well-priced options on the all-Piedmontese wine list) and comparing notes on the salad of chopped, firm endive and tender chicory bearing the occasional toothsome chunk of braised rabbit, noting how the balsamic-tart cipollini that dotted the salami plate stole the show. My table of four had shared these two dishes since we’d opted for the “principale” menu: two antipasti, one pasta and one entrée for $47 per person (the menu also offers other communal options: a two-course “pasto” dinner for $32 per person, and a degustation, or taste of everything on the menu, for $75 per person.) The down side of ordering this way? Everything’s served family style (or available a la carte if you specify), and everyone in your party has to agree on which dishes to try. I love big platters in a rustic setting like this, but in the end, my table paid $200 to taste just four dishes. That’s hard to swallow.
So was that long stretch. Our first bottle of wine ran dry (we shrugged and ordered another—what else was there to do?) and our waitress, clearly stretched beyond her capacity, was hard to flag down. By the time our spectacular second course arrived—impossibly tender ravioli filled with a perfect mouthful of beet greens and homemade ricotta cheese—we were famished. Yes, this is pasta worth waiting for. But for how long?
My second visit was a triumph. Just my husband and me this time, we sat snugly shoulder to shoulder at the bar, mesmerized by the view into the busy kitchen, running our hands over the double-duty butcher block countertop (during daylight hours, the dining bar serves as Neidermeyer’s pasta-making platform). We ordered from the à la carte menu this time and shared bites of fork-tender vitello tonnato (poached veal with tuna-caper aioli, $14), the best version of this classic Piedmontese dish I’ve tasted in years. The tajarin ($19)—hand-cut noodles so full of egg yolk they’re the color of saffron—wore a traditional (meaty, but not too tomatoey) sauce that allowed the pasta to be the star. And then impossibly tiny, hand-pinched agnolotti del plin ($22), filled with pork, arrived. We were awed: Not just because we’d reached pasta nirvana, but because there were seemingly hundreds of the savory pockets floating in the aromatic chicken broth.
After this second dinner, I was enamored. But a thought kept nagging me: In order to enjoy Spinasse (and a slew of new restaurants, including Poppy, The Corson Building, Sitka & Spruce, and How to Cook a Wolf), does the average diner need a handbook? At museums, it’s de rigueur to read about the artist in order to gain insight into the art itself. I wonder if the same could be said about Spinasse. Without any back-story—without knowing that the tajarin is made by hand, a nearly impossible feat to imagine when lustily twisting a fork in the long, capellini-like noodles—could one mistake Spinasse for just another charmingly rustic trattoria? There’s a real artisan at work here, and as the economy flattens out and free spending requires a more thorough gut-check, restaurants such as this face an even more tenuous existence. Perhaps a little weeding out of our flush dining scene is inevitable, but I appreciate restaurants like this now more than ever. I just hope I’m not alone.
Capitol Hill, 1531 14th Ave.; 206.251.7673; spinasse.com