Italian Soul Food

Handmade Piedmontese pasta is heaven on 14th Avenue.

By Kathryn Robinson January 11, 2009 Published in the December 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Amos Morgan

FROM WHERE I STOOD on 14th Avenue, if I squinted, I could make out just enough through the lace curtains on Cascina Spinasse’s steamed-up windows to know that the place was packed. On a Monday. Inside, some 15 revelers filled the longest trestle table, laughing around a cache of killed Barolo bottles, while boisterous conversations—at least one in Italian—floated up through the flickering candlelight. We nabbed the last two chairs in the joint: counter seats at the butcher block up front between a guy with Andy Warhol hair and Boat Street Café’s owner and chef, Renee Erickson, enjoying her night off. As we sat down, one of the gnarled candles in the brass dog candlestick near our place setting dripped a slow pool of wax onto my friend’s napkin. If Cascina Spinasse were any more Old World, we’d have arrived by horse.

Raw wood joists and wrought-iron chandeliers adorned the ceiling above us; nicked fir boards lined the floor. Wine, lots of it, from the Piedmont region of Italy, occupied wood shelves on dark wainscoted walls. Primitive pasta-cutting tools hung over the butcher block, where just two hours earlier Cascina Spinasse chef and part owner Justin Neidermeyer had lifted the broad sheets of yolk-yellow dough he’d dried on towels over the bar rail, then folded them like big burritos and cut them by hand. He’d fashioned the uneven ends into the random wide strips the Italians call maltagliati, or “badly cut,” then cut the rest into the fine strands known as tajarin.

From our counter perches we had a straight shot into the kitchen, where the rumpled, elfin, 31-year-old Neidermeyer carefully turned the cooked tajarin al ragu into a shallow oval serving dish. There was no mistaking the man whose run as a Ballard Farmers Market pasta peddler had made him as much of a celebrity as a farmers market is likely to produce. Chefs from all over town clamored to buy his pasta for their establishments. He supplied his buddies—Sitka and Spruce’s Matt Dillon, Lark’s John Sundstrom, my new dinner partner Renee Erickson—but he didn’t want his operation to grow too big, too commercial.

Neidermeyer dreamed of opening an intimate three-night-a-week dinner house in Eastlake where he would live upstairs, make pasta, keep things simple. But when lease issues queered the deal, out of desperation he grabbed the 14th Avenue space, former home of the Globe Café. Only later did he realize what an atmospheric gem he’d landed, or what slavering anticipation his farmers market notoriety had wrought among Italophiles across town. Cascina Spinasse opened in August, furnished with mismatched chairs, a mirror bought at Goodwill, and tables Neidermeyer had crafted by hand from 100-year-old fir. The place was slammed from day one.

Image: Amos Morgan

Since then he’s been holding forth in his square kitchen, amid gleaming stockpots and bottled oils on warm wood shelves and green herbs sprouting from jars. With an indulgent smile at some joke that had his whole youthful kitchen crew chuckling, the chef dusted the plate before him with parmigiano and handed it off to our waiter. “Your tajarin,” the waiter pronounced, setting it before us. “Pasta made from flour and egg yolks.”

I expected it to be rich, but I wasn’t prepared for the texture. The flour binds with the egg yolks to create a pasta that held its integrity in the simple ragu and resisted going to mush in the mouth. But never had I encountered such fairylike delicacy in so muscular a pasta. The laborious hand-cutting—“a Zen thing,” Neidermeyer calls it—enables a finer strand than a machine would, but also creates an unevenness that enhances mouthfeel. Nobody else is making pasta like this in Seattle. Few are doing it outside Italy.

That’s where Neidermeyer learned to make it, from an old man named Cinto in the village of Barbaresco, set amid the hills and chestnut forests of Piedmont. The young Redmond-bred Neidermeyer had been stirring up dreams of Italy for some time, ever since starting as a lunch cook at age 17 at the lauded Bellevue bakery, London’s Bakehouse. Gigs at Bandoleone and Brasa followed, and then Cafe Juanita, where he served as “everything guy” for owner and chef Holly Smith. One day while Neider-meyer was out shoveling gravel, Cafe Juanita’s former owner Peter Dow came by, spouting stories about his own apprenticeship in Italy. He knew a wine producer who knew a pastamaker who would certainly nurture a young talent like Neidermeyer. The young chef went home and bought an airline ticket.

Never had I encountered such delicacy in so muscular a pasta. Nobody else is making pasta like this in Seattle. Few are doing it outside Italy.

In Barbaresco, Neidermeyer felt like his soul had found its home. By strange coincidence, he also encountered a familiar palette of ingredients. Black truffles, common in any Piedmont kitchen, grow under Northwest pines in an even more distinctively flavored variant. In one dish we tried, the thin slices lent their sublimely dirty perfume (for an extra $10) to a dish of caramelly, slow-roasted goat with heirloom Italian kale and chanterelles. (The goat, often tough in restaurants, was fall-apart tender here.) Heirloom chicories, rife throughout Piedmont, grow profuse and leafy at a farm in Carnation; Neidermeyer cuts them into rollicking salads loaded with marinated rabbit loin and curls of parmigiano reggiano. Even veal, the pride of Piedmont, appears at Spinasse in a Washington State grass-fed version, poached to a winsome blush, then lavished with tuna aioli.

“Traditional vitello tonnato,” pronounced our waiter, who had strongly recommended the dish. Like every server I encountered at Cascina Spinasse, he knew his food and wine but felt no need to flog the uninitiated with his intelligence—a winning quality in a city crammed with culinary know-it-alls. I dragged a parchment-thin fold of veal through the mayonnaise and put it in my mouth, closing my eyes against the cool purity of the tuna, piqued with capers and lemon, and delivered through as lush a sauce as I have ever known. I swallowed, sipped my Nebbiolo, and thanked heaven for Neidermeyer’s Italian soul.