Leaving our pre-dinner pizza at Bar Del Corso on our second night in Seattle my dining companions, without a doubt the people who know be the best on this whole planet, questioned whether I really wanted to go for a larger dinner a mere two hours later…obviously a rhetorical question indicating that they were already getting full while I had not even hit full stride. Explaining to them that yes indeed I did want to experience the well regarded classical Piedmontese cooking of Jason Stratton during our visit and that given the holiday hours this would be our only chance the only response I received was a somewhat exasperated sigh – a sigh that would be repeated only four hours later in an entirely different context; one of total contentment.
Opened in 2008 and receiving praise not only from local gourmands and critics but from those on the east coast as well I had actually originally heard of Cascina Spinasse during a meal in Philadelphia 17 months beforehand when a server at Vetri told me that although she loved Marc’s filled pastas the best fresh pasta she had ever encountered was at a spot in Seattle – a house made pasta with simple butter and sage I would later discover to be Stratton’s critically acclaimed Tajarin. With no real plans to visit Seattle in the near future at that point I simply added a note to my ever-growing list and moved along with my life and travels yet literally the moment my sister suggested Seattle as a place for our winter vacation the first thing to pop into my mind (okay, after the rain and the Space Needle) was the Tajarin and within days a reservation was made.
Having spent some time walking the streets and browsing local shops and coffee stores as the rain had settled while we dined at Del Corso our arrival at Cascina Spinasse would be just moments prior to our 8:30pm reservation and greeted by a young woman at the podium or reservation was confirmed and led through the busy bar area past the wide open kitchen where Chef Stratton and team could visibly be seen cooking – and more impressively laying out and cutting the pasta – we soon found ourselves at a cozy four-top in the entirely full room. Seated for mere moments and taking in the surroundings – mostly woods, off white plaster walls, candles, and subtle art we were soon met by our server, a middle aged gentleman named King who presented our menus, the wine list, water, and a memorized list of specials before leaving us to our decisions. Rustic and cozy and just a bit loud secondary to the counter seating and the bar the overall decor of Spinasse reminded me a lot of the previously mentioned Vetri while the noise and energy was more akin to another Philadelphia restaurant, the more casual (but entirely excellent) Modo Mio.
Debating our choices as so many looked good but with my mother and aunt still feigning full from the days eating prior King would return after approximately ten minutes and with wine declined we proceeded to order two courses each; some menu staples and others daily specials but all receiving the approval of our server who claimed “nothing on the menu is less than great” before offering up a few of his personal favorites. Again with water filled and a house made juice poured for my aunt King would at this point disappear for mere seconds only to return with the nightly amuse bouche – four fresh Anchovies on Crostata with butter and black pepper – a well balanced and briny bite that none of the others were interested in thus leaving me with the woeful task of enjoying all four.
With the amuses finished we sat and talked for a while discussing the interesting dynamics of the restaurant – some people ordering full tastings while others opted for only appetizers and wine – before King would return with our first course and a loaf of crunchy warm house-made semolina bread that (despite their not being hungry) we all ate so much of that it necessitated refills.
Beginning first with a pair of salads, one for my sister and the other for my mother, “Insalata di cicoria di campo” and “Insalata di barbabietole” both seemed strange choices for people claiming to be full but in the end both ended up very pleased with their respective choices. With greens crisp and slightly bitter the local chicory salad with marinated rabbit, parmigiano-reggiano, balsamico would start things off showing a nice hand with balanced bitter, salty, and sweet while the rabbit’s mild nuttiness and incredibly lean came through with aplomb. Moving next to the beet salad with meyer lemon ricotta, pickled shallots, and parsley I was particularly fond of just how earthy these particular beets were but more so with the decision to marry them with two discrepant forms of sour. An ample portion to be certain and all tamed by the creamy ricotta there was more than enough to go around.
Moving next to my aunt’s appetizer – a half portion of the original reason for our visit – the Hand cut Tajarin with butter and sage would prove to be every bit worth the substantial hype, no small feat for something as simple as butter, noodles, salt, and a few leaves of crispy sage. Impossibly light, literally melting in the mouth particularly when saturated in so much butter, and just a touch of seasoning – it reminded me all at once of my childhood love of simple butter and noodles and some of the best angel-hair pasta dishes I have ever had. While I was glad my aunt ordered it so I could try other things there was also a part of me that wanted to steal the plate – yes, steal buttered noodles – or at least order a serving of my own.
Targeting a pasta as my main course and unable to decide between one of the menu favorites and one of the nightly specials I eschewed the idea of a whole pasta and instead opted for a half order so that I could try two appetizers; the first a dish called “Uovo con fonduta al tartufo nero” that paired three things I love into a single warm jar; a poached egg, black truffles, and creamy fontina cheese. Again seemingly focused on simplicity and purity of flavors this dish would prove to be another great success even before I took a bite as a simple flip of the latch permeated the air with the smell of butter and truffles and once this effect was fully appreciated I moved on to taking a bite, the buttery “fonduta” melding seamlessly with the creamy egg while the truffle notes filled the palate. A lovely dish and for all intents and purposes a texture somewhere between a soup and a spread my only regret was that it arrived with another hot item because otherwise I’d have savored it with about a half of a loaf of bread.
With the egg sealed to hold in some heat while I tasted the next dish, Pig Trotters with tangerine, lentils, stewed winter greens, and foie gras butter would prove to be a tasty and well composed dish nearly opposite the egg in every conceivable way. Beginning first with the feet – two were served in total and each was hemisected, breaded, fried, and intensely porky and succulent with notes of sage and rosemary detectable in the light coating. Moving next to the accoutrements, the lentils were presented as a toothsome admixture that although slightly undercooked for my taste proved to be a nutty foil to the pork while the light gravy of melted foie gras presented the liver’s trademark sapor while two sections of citrus and a twist of their juice helped to offset an otherwise hearty winter plate a few degrees towards the warmer seasons.
With the appetizers all hitting their mark and our selections of second courses largely from the primi section of the menu the trend would continue as King had collected our plates only to return ten minutes later with four more plates and another loaf of bread. Beginning first with the only secondi of the evening, a dish selected by my sister, Polpetti di coniglio was a dish I could have predicted her to guess on any menu in the world and although the pickled horseradish atop was deemed a miss by everyone at the table the three rabbit meatballs wrapped in caul fat with caramelized turnip puree would prove to be exemplary. Beginning first with the puree – apparently made first by cooking down the locally grown turnips with olive oil and a touch of sugar, then running them through a food processor and finally a sieve the flavor and texture was simply remarkable; sweet, earthy, and smooth as butter. Moving next to the “bunny balls” as my sister affectionately termed them – three large, well seasoned, and intensely juicy rounds of lean protein browned to perfection as a result to being protected by the ‘shell’ of now-crispy fat – in a word they were perfect, a word I don’t generally reserve for rabbit as I generally find it too dry.
Content to remain with pastas my aunt’s second selection would mirror her first in the form of that same delicate Hand cut Tajarin this time paired with a slightly tomato tinged meat ragu loaded with notes of basil, rosemary, and what I distinctly tasted as nutmeg but my aunt felt was more cumin. Another tasty take on the Tajarin and served in an even larger portion despite both being ordered as halves it was good – but all things being equal we’d have all sooner selected another portion of the butter and sage instead.
Moving next to another of the daily specials, ever reminiscent of the Pumpkin Lune at Babbo my mother selected the a half portion of the Butternut squash ravioli with amaretti crumble and butter – a dead ringer for the Batali classic that aside from the classy tableside finish was every bit as tasty and memorable with the translucent pasta yielding its creamy filling and marrying beautifully with the buttery crumbs and a touch of cheese. Admittedly pricey at $4 per ravioli I must say I personally would have been disappointed by such a skimpy portion but per my mother “it was worth it.”
For the final savory of the evening and my own personal main course, a half order of the winter menu item entitled “Potbelly Ravioli stuffed with winter greens, seasoned walnuts, butter” would be my choice and featuring yet another nearly translucent pasta this time nearly bursting with shredded kale and garden greens I must say that the concept of a bitter vegetal pasta would have never occurred to me yet in this context – particularly when paired with the semi-sweet toasted walnuts and a touch of butter plus thin slices of hard parmesan cheese – it worked quite nicely. Tender and ample in portion as it arrived as a quintet to trump my mother’s duo for only a dollar more I additionally found the price per bite ratio for this plate to be quite appealing even if the overall “wow” factor was not quite as high as that of the dainty pockets of squash.
Having learned long ago that “full” never means forgoing dessert in my family, especially after a meal as good as the one we’d just had, the obvious answer when King stopped by to offer us dessert was “absolutely” and although the restaurant jilted me by only offering espresso “as it is served in Italy” and no coffee they more than made up for it with the night’s five desserts – four of which would make it to our table beginning with the house specialty “Terrina di torrone,” a creamy almond gelato studded with candied almonds, resting in a stripe of honey caramel, and topped with a honey tuille. Like a chilled version of the classic Italian candy and intensely sweet yet light on the stomach this would prove to be a perfect dessert after such a long day of eating, but all told it certainly wasn’t my favorite of the quartet.
Moving next to the dessert that originally intrigued me the least of those on the menu, Erika’s “Mousse di formaggio di capra” would actually turn out to be quite stunning in both its flavor and rustic nature. Beginning at its base with a dollop of sweet goat cheese mousse and drizzles of huckleberry preserves and then layered alternatingly with puff pastry, a larger dollop of mousse, and again more pastry it was something akin to a haphazard mille-feuille and while perhaps not as beautiful every bit as light and tasty.
Again focusing on rustic presentations and unique flavors my aunt’s dessert selection would once again be apples – in this case the “Crespelle di mele” with six warm and fluffy crespelles stacked in a pyramid and loaded with cooked apples atop a bed of muscovado cream and candied almond crumble. Expecting something more akin to a puff pastry I actually found this to be the weakest of the desserts and although good I think a sweeter apple may have helped – either that or some ice cream.
Moving finally to the dish I’d have selected for myself had my mother not ordered first the “Baba di meyer limoncello” would prove every bit as lovely as I’d hoped and next to Del Corso’s Quince and Polenta cake (enjoyed only earlier that night) it would prove to be the second best dessert of the trip. Beginning first with the baba, in this case a steamed cake with a lot of density but large open pockets not unlike a popover, the limoncello soaked pastry was exemplary in texture while the booze was admirably balanced by the smooth citrus sweet meyer lemon cream. Already impressive but not yet ready for prime as it were, a final addition to this plate was made tableside as a drizzle of warm cardamom flower honey was added providing not only a mild fructose sweetness but also a lovely floral note that lingered on the finish.
With the restaurant (and particularly the bar) still bustling and myself finally beginning to get full as my dining companions were admittedly well past King would return to the table to collect our dessert plates before inquiring if we would like anything else and on declining we were presented the bill – a very modest tab given the quality of the food, service, and room especially when compared to similar restaurants in New York and Philadelphia. With the bill paid and a generous tip for the service we managed to squeeze through the small dining room and past the bar where we were bid farewell by not only King, but also the dining room manager who asked us where we were from, how we’d heard of them, and “wanted to wish us a wonderful evening and a happy New Year” – a nice touch only improved upon by spending the next five minutes standing near in the entryway watching the team continue to hand cut that wonderful Tajarin.