Providence Cicero reviews Seattle's Spinasse Italian restaurant, a rustic little trattoria with a focus on the Piedmont where very good antipasti, homemade pasta and entrees are eaten at communal tables.
Justin Neidermeyer looks like a boyish Pavarotti. His stage is comprised of white oak and Carrara marble, and Spinasse is his La Scala.
Within this modest storefront between Pike and Pine on a drab block of Capitol Hill, Neidermeyer fashions fresh pastas so light the dough could serve as angel’s wings. He honed his craft in Italy and built his reputation here as a pastaiolo, first at Café Juanita, then reaching a wider audience through farmers’ markets. The well-worn tools and dies of his trade hang neatly above the raw oak counter that, along with the adjacent marble-topped bar, doubles as a dining space for a lucky few. The rest of the 30-some customers occupy four tables of varying sizes.
Yes, Spinasse (say speen-AH-say) is yet another boisterous restaurant where communal dining is de rigueur. It’s not for everyone, but I would urge anyone enthralled with la vita bella Italiana to go and experience one of the purest evocations of northwestern Italy’s Piedmont region that you are likely to find in the New World.
The food woos — and wows — with straightforward charm: Bracing antipasti are followed by pastas moistened with broth, butter or simple meat ragus; vegetables, meat and game are unencumbered by heavy sauces.
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The 100 percent Piemontese wine list puts producers first. You’ll find Gavi and Arneis, the region’s complex whites, plus reds that range from versatile dolcettos and barberas to the aristocrats of Barolo and Barbaresco. Several are poured by the glass, quartino and half-liter, as well as by the bottle.
As for atmosphere, this rustic little trattoria might have been plucked straight from the Italian hillside farmhouse for which it was named. Beyond the bar, the kitchen is visible through a broad doorway flanked by glass-fronted cabinetry filled with stemware. Higher shelves stock grappa and other digestivi. Hardwood floors match tables made of century-old fir rubbed dark with walnut oil.
Layers of wax shroud brass candelabra that supplement the soft light of chandeliers so ancient-looking they might once have held candles themselves. Among the restaurant’s few modern touches are colorful contemporary prints by famed grappaiolo-cum-artist Romano Levi in the dining room and the Ferrari-red meat slicer in the kitchen.
The kitchen is relaxed and jocular. Neidermeyer and his team work and chat around a large island, as if they were at home cooking for friends. Servers join in the banter as they finish plates with just-grated cheese, add serving pieces and deliver them to waiting customers.
The convivial mood extends to the dining room. One evening I sat with a mom, dad and five teenagers on one side of me and half a dozen friends celebrating a birthday on the other. It felt like a holiday dinner with the extended family.
In fact most dishes are presented family-style, whether you order a la carte or choose one of the fixed-price menu options. Those loath to limit their choices can opt for tutti — everything on the menu is available as a menu degustazione for $75 per person.
“Everything” means a taste of all six antipasti, all three pastas and both secondi. It included just one of the three desserts, local alpine huckleberries spiked with grappa and lemon, but excluded contorni, assorted vegetable side dishes. It’s a lot of food, to be sure, but the meal, intelligently portioned and leisurely paced, is a feast well worth sampling, though everyone in your party must agree to go for it.
It would be hard to pick a highlight among the antipasti; they were all uniformly appealing. Cippolini, tiny sweet and sour onions marinated in agrodolce, accented paper-thin slices of Fra’ Mani salami, while nuggets of fragrant cantaloupe melon nestled among luxurious ripples of prosciutto di Parma.
Capers lent their tart bite to two sauces: a thick, parsley emulsion coating pungent brown anchovies; and a lemon-kissed tuna mayonnaise draping thinly sliced, cold poached veal.
Tender chunks of poached rabbit and curls of Parmesan punctuated heirloom chicory salad in a lemon and olive-oil dressing that enhanced both the meat and bitter greens. Oil and vinegar smoothly finished a salad of baby beets, farro grains and bits of fennel that resembled a cache of rubies.
There is no going wrong with pastas either. “Agnolotti del plin in brodo,” ragged-edged, rectangular dumplings no bigger than the tip of your thumb, have a savory meat-and-cheese flavor that match the dazzling intensity of their chicken broth. The pinked edges of maltagliati look like scraps from the sewing room, random cuts that are perfect for a salty ragu of braised lamb, carrots and herbs.
Ravioli stuffed with rapini and ricotta gleams with sage butter, the bitter green filling apparent through the sheer dough. Tajarin are skinny hand-cut egg noodles that somehow have the tensile strength to wind around the fork even with bits of coarsely ground meat and sweet, bright tomato sauce clinging to the gossamer strands.
Quail and rabbit were the “secondi” options on my visits. Crushed juniper berries and red-wine vinegar lent a tart, citrusy note to the tiny, plump birds roasted with meaty boletus mushrooms and fingerling potatoes. They are served with a splash of balsamico on a bed of wilted Treviso.
Tender, rosemary-perfumed rabbit rested on a cushion of roasted red peppers. The boniest bits just beg to be gnawed on. Go ahead, use your fingers. Such unguarded moments of gustatory bravado is what Spinasse is all about.
Providence Cicero: email@example.com