“I was trying to be brave,” he remembers.
It wasn’t until Stratton’s tenure under chef Holly Smith at Café Juanita in Kirkland that he truly fell for Italian amari—along with grappas, vermouth, and Italian cooking traditions that date back to medieval times. “There are dishes that have been unchanged over 400 years. That’s fascinating,” says Stratton. A self-confessed history geek, he is equally fascinated by the medicinal origins of the Italian amari, first designed to be “helpful tonics” for stimulating appetite and aiding digestion.
At new Italian aperitivo bar Artusi, Stratton will have the chance to spread the amari gospel, something he’s already started at Spinasse. “There are things we like to drink before a meal, and we love to share that. For us its exciting to be that spark.” He says about half the diners at Spinasse have had previous encounters with concoctions like Campari, Fernet Branca, and Cynar, and they are usually the younger ones. “These days you can find Fernet all over the city,” he says. “That wasn’t true four or five years ago.”
Stratton has been playing around with the idea of an aperitivo bar for some time but the idea became a reality during the planning phase of Spinasse’s expansion. All of the property along 14th Avenue between the original restaurant and the corner of Pine became available, but it added up to too much space for Spinasse alone.
And so began plans for a 50-seat companion bar inspired by the casual imbibing culture of Italy. “In Europe you would never go out and have a drink without something to eat,” says Stratton. “It’s much more about the act of going out with your friends and being social.” To recreate that sort of atmosphere, Artusi will offer smaller pours designed for sampling—those include six-ounce beers and four ounce wines by the glass.
The food menu (unlike Piedmont-focused Spinasse, it will include dishes from all over Italy) will be similarly casual and more value-driven than that of Spinasse. “If you wanted to create a bigger meal, you could do that,” explains Stratton. But the idea is something less formal, more spontaneous and snacky.
There was no formal designer on the project; Stratton worked closely with architectural firm Zeroplus to create a contemporary aesthetic that will contrast with Spinasse’s traditional look. He compares the effect to when you wander the streets of Milan and see a traditional trattoria abutted by a modern bar or discotheque.
“I wasn’t inspired by one particular place,” says Stratton. “I was thinking: What if I could create my own perfect bar?”
The current target date for Artusi’s opening is the 4th or 5th of June. The complete Spinasse remodel will be unveiled on May 27.