Italian is my favorite type of food: simple dishes designed to make impeccable ingredients shine. And admittedly, I have a weakness for great pasta. But I’ve been forever disappointed in Seattle’s Italian offerings. Sure, there are La Spiga, Tavolata, Volterra, Branzino, and others which are good, but none match that ideal we’ve been looking for, especially on the heels of a trip to Italy, when we’re craving handmade pasta and authentic rustic antipasti.
Our hopes were raised when we heard last year that Justin Neidermeyer was planning to open a restaurant in Seattle featuring his ethereal pasta. He’s known for the handmade pasta he sold at the Ballard market a couple years ago. When the folks at Sitka & Spruce told us that he was hosting trial dinners at their restaurant last fall, we signed up immediately. The intimate 10-person dinner only managed to make us more excited for his restaurant to open: the pastas were truly amazing and the meal left us giddy about the prospects of a Seattle restaurant where we could enjoy this kind of food.
Finally, Spinasse opened last Thursday. We dined there on their second night, one of the hottest evenings in Seattle this summer. The menu is family-style and designed for having a number of courses, just as you would at a restaurant in Italy: antipasti (starters), primi (pasta), secondi (usually a meat or fish), insalata verde (salad, typically eaten before dessert), and dolci (desserts). You can choose between three fixed price options, depending on how hungry you are: $33 for your choice of one antipasto and one primo, $47 for two antipasti, one primo, and one secondo, or $75 for everything (when we were there this included tastes of six antipasti, three primi, two secondi, and a light dessert).
Each dish transported us straight back to Italy. With the sweet and sour onions served with artisan salami from Fra Mani, we were suddenly eating dinner at a rustic agriturismo outside Bologna. With the intensely sweet, juicy melon wrapped in 24 month proscuitto, we were now on the piazza on a beautiful day in Verona. We nearly cleaned all the plates of antipasti before remembering that we had several more courses coming and needed to pace ourselves.
Next up: the pasta. Each was perfect, and it was hard picking favorites. The gnocchi were light and served with the cutest chanterelles and tomatoes with basil. The agnolotti filling was flavorful and quintessentially northern Italian. These two pasta alone would have left me happy and satisfied, but it was the tajarin, fine hand-cut egg pasta, served with ragu, that simply blew us away: delicate and perfectly al dente.
The option they’re missing from the menu is a pasta tasting menu. While pasta-only meals are not typical in Italy, one of our more memorable meals in northern Italy was at a restaurant in Bologna known for its pasta menu degustazione. At Osteria Numero Sette we had upwards of seven different pasta courses. I think this would be a great way to highlight Justin’s pasta making skills!
We were full now and could only nibble at the secondi: a delicious roasted chicken with amazing dandelion greens (typically a very bitter vegetable) and potatoes, along with slow-roasted goat with chickpeas and savoy cabbage. More than one of the wait staff told us that they’re still adjusting portion sizes – during their trial dinners the plates had been even larger! They’re aiming for more reasonable sizes and were anxious to get our feedback. So for the best deal, get there soon.
Dessert was typically Italian – nothing complicated, and a light sweet ending to the meal. In this case, it was a single slice of Piemontese Toma cheese with a perfectly roasted nectarine half drizzled in honey. Remember how we were full? We ate every bite without a problem.
Ok, so the food was great, but how about the service? Somehow it always seems that in Seattle you can get great food, or great service, but rarely both. Not so at Spinasse. Our waiter was super-friendly and down-to-earth, and as a former New Yorker (where there are as many Italian restaurants as there are Starbucks in Seattle), he was excited himself about the arrival of Spinasse. He was attentive, and even when returning to the kitchen with a handful of plates, stopped to welcome patrons who had just walked in the door. We also didn’t go wrong by asking him to choose our wines – the white and red he chose were both great and well-paired with the food (not surprising since the wine list is exclusively Piemontese, and regional wines really do seem to match local food the best). We particularly appreciated the quartino size wine options, with about a glass and a half of wine per carafe, making it easy to pair a couple different wines with our meal.
The only downside of the experience was the heat. But we all know that air conditioning is rare in Seattle, and those few hot days of summer are ones that you have to grin and bear in exchange for the generally idyllic summer. But compounded with the summer heat were the periodic blasts of hot air wafting straight from the kitchen, which left diners sweltering. I generally wither in heat, but it still didn’t mar our experience. We were just so crazy about the food, and somehow, I think it even made it feel more like dinner on a hot summer day in Italy.
UPDATE 8/23: They’ve been tweaking things at Spinasse based on the feedback they’ve been hearing. Previously, à la carte options were only available while sitting at the bar, but now are available to everyone. They’ve lowered the price on the smallest fixed price menu to $27, and they’ve added an antipasto misto option, where you can try small bites of every antipasti for $20. Still no pasta tasting menu, though.
1531 14th Avenue, Seattle