A Life Extruded: Mike Easton and the Alki Homestead’s Path to Il Nido

When the chef reshaped his career he couldn't have known he'd share his destiny with a century-old log cabin and dining icon rising from literal ashes.

By Allecia Vermillion Photography by Kyle Johnson October 22, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Flashing emergency lights cut through the dark on a quiet block just off Alki Avenue in the early hours of January 16, 2009. The fire trucks descended upon an oversize log cabin, an unlikely postcard from Frontierland seemingly dropped into this beach-facing neighborhood thick with apartment buildings. In summer, the nearby waterfront musters Seattle’s best approximation of a Southern California boardwalk, but at 5:30 that winter morning, a full emergency response obscured the luminous gray footnote of Elliott Bay.

Firefighters stamped out the flames that shot through the low-sloped roof. The cause, investigators soon determined, was at least 10 strings of Christmas lights, plugged into a single aging outlet. The charred interior was bad, but the emotional blow to the community was perhaps worse. The cabin, known as the Alki Homestead, was both a landmark of Seattle’s early days, and the repository of three generations of memories for the locals who celebrated various milestones at the restaurant within.

The building’s owner told West Seattle Blog it could take six months to reopen. Instead it sat, rotting in a stew of neglect and complication, its path to survival unclear. A decade would pass before the Homestead’s kitchen would serve its next meal.

This past May marked the conclusion of a transformation that once seemed impossible. The cabin, fronted by a stretch of green lawn, manifested every Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasy of my youth. A riot of dahlias and spires of purple blossoms bloomed against the dark logs, and white-trimmed windows with gleaming glass panes wrapped around the side of the house that once faced the water, before other buildings encroached. The distinctive neon sign on the roof once again proclaimed “Alki Homestead” in glowing red. A newer sign of wood and metal, just beyond the river rock chimney, announced the name of the new restaurant occupant. Il Nido—“the nest.”

It’s completely booked, night after night…after night, tables seemingly unattainable. Jubilant preservationists aren’t the ones filling the handsome dining room—at least not mostly. Chef Mike Easton has received a couple James Beard Award nominations and various national plaudits, but the real testament to his BFD status in this town is the line of people who wait, sometimes for two hours, for a bowl of pasta at his original, lunch-only restaurant, Il Corvo. Many of the queued-up devotees—off-duty chefs, professionals flagrantly extending their lunch hour—date back to his bootstrapped popup days, the bucatini-based equivalent of liking a band before they hit it big.

During a darker period of his life, the chef had charted a path away from the long and grinding hours that define his industry. He built a whole career—and an enviable following—around cooking on his own terms. This building, with its own unlikely comeback story, was the thing that pulled him back in.

• • • • 

Mike Easton didn’t so much move to Seattle as had his band’s tour bus deposit him here on its way back to Albuquerque. In 1999, it seemed like a logical place for a guy who’d just trained to be a recording engineer. Today, nearly 46, Easton looks like a rockabilly hunk gone dad bod; back then he looked much the same but with a younger man’s pre-pasta physique—a somewhat-intentional upsweep of dirty blond hair, a frequent smile of slightly crooked teeth, and a stock of black V-necks that served him well as both a musician and a cook, since they conceal olive oil stains.

Easton bounced between those two roles after dropping out of high school at age 16 in Rio Rancho, an Albuquerque suburb he describes as subdivision after subdivision, the kind of place where you could see a mirror image of your own house a few doors down. He played bass, then guitar in various bands styled after Brit rockers like the Kinks and picked up a job washing dishes, chopping veg, and cracking cases of brunch-bound eggs at a Mexican restaurant. It was a gig, not a passion. Though as the son of a mechanic, he had plenty of those. Easton skateboarded and tinkered with a curvy, powder blue 1962 Lambretta scooter from Italy. When his band went on tour, he’d send postcards back to Victoria Diaz, a University of New Mexico student with delicate features and a head of willful curls, who he’d met through a bandmate’s girlfriend.

Cooking was a job he could quit any time his band needed to go on tour, only to resume once he needed cash for scooter parts and guitar amplifiers. Sometimes he’d get fired. One boss at a Greek restaurant canned him on three separate occasions—though never for performance, Easton stresses. “My mouth is the only thing that’s ever gotten me fired in my entire life.” Later, a pantry job at the Albuquerque Hilton came with a realization: Cooking wasn’t just an income. “This was a whole culture.”

Mike Easton had no desire to open a proper restaurant. Then he laid eyes on this space.

Image: Kyle Johnson

After four years of dating, Easton and Victoria decided to trade New Mexico for someplace new. Victoria joined him in Seattle, where he scooped gelato at a little shop on a wide brick staircase on the hillside beneath Pike Place Market while working freelance music production jobs. He baked at Caffe Ladro’s commissary, then became a barista at Ladro’s location by the Paramount Theatre. “He was one of the best baristas, the fastest learner I’ve ever seen,” remembers Ladro owner Jack Kelly. He and Easton struck up a friendship that carried over when freelance turned into full-time studio work. To Easton’s surprise, he disliked the sound engineering job. He felt like an ass taking money from bad musicians. He felt worse taking money from the good, usually broke ones. His nights ran even later than a cook’s might, remembers Victoria, as Easton waited for a recording artist’s 2am moment of inspiration. At least she ate well in that year and a half. On nights off, “Cooking dinner was pretty much my escape from my terrible job,” Easton recalls.

Then Jack Kelly offered a full-time escape. An old friend wanted to sell his restaurant, Bizzarro Italian Cafe, a neighborhood spot nestled among the bungalows in Wallingford, its interior layered with bicycles and birdcages.

“Hey Mike,” Kelly queried his pal, “do you know how to cook Italian food?”


But the truth was closer to kinda. “I knew Italian American food,” he says now, much of it from pasta specials back at the Albuquerque Hilton. One night in 2005, after Easton had tweaked the menu, a jocular dignitary of Seattle’s Italian foodscape paid Bizzarro a visit. Armandino Batali had opened a deli, Salumi, after a 31-year career at Boeing. His porchetta and meatballs and ciabatta sandwiches stuffed with soppressata earned him adoration and perpetual lines (meanwhile, his son Mario was in the early stages of what proved a tumultuous celebrity chef career). Kelly was an early regular, so Batali came to dine at his newly acquired restaurant. After dinner, Kelly introduced Batali to his business partner and chef. “We sat down to have couple more glasses of—well, bottles of wine, probably,” says Batali. As he remembers it, Easton asked if he had any advice. The elder man served up some real talk. “I said, if you want to cook this food, you need to go to Italy.”

Easton went soon after, armed with some contacts from Batali, and ultimately spent a month in Tuscany to absorb all he could cooking split shifts, six days a week, at a restaurant called Torre Guelfa. The sojourn didn’t impart technical skills so much as a window into how Italians approach food. Mike accompanied chef Claudio Piantini to the markets and haggled over produce; whatever they came away with made it onto the night’s menu. Back in Seattle, he 86’d the year-round caprese salad from Bizzarro’s menu and instituted fresh pasta. Victoria, now Victoria Diaz Easton, worked in furniture retail, but kept their books on the side, until their daughter Pilar arrived in March 2008.

Family obligations pulled the couple and baby Pilar back to Santa Fe the next year; he and Jack Kelly sold the restaurant to a few longtime employees, right before Guy Fieri showed up with the production crew for his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives to proclaim the elk bolognese “super monster tender.”

Though Easton’s of mostly Northern European heritage, Armandino Batali grants him honorary Italian status. “Some chefs are great recipe people,” he told me recently, not long after his first dinner at Il Nido. “The romance is not in any of them.” Mike Easton “does pasta better than just about anybody in the states,” he says. “I really think so.” Easton would continue to hone those talents through a fitful evolution, as the log cabin that houses his new restaurant had a century earlier.

• • • • 

The Alki Homestead began its life with a different name. In 1904, a Seattle soap manufacturer named William Bernard built an estate he and his wife, Gladys, dubbed Fir Lodge. Their tract of land on Alki Point stretched down to the lapping water. The surrounding woods supplied most of the Douglas fir trees, trunks two feet in diameter, to build what looks today like a Lincoln Log version of the Craftsman bungalows that sprang up across Elliott Bay in Seattle proper during that era. Bernard himself hauled some of the stones from the beach to build the massive living room fireplace.

Alki’s shore, remote in the days before bridges, had become a summer vacation destination, its beach lined with shacks and tents. Fir Lodge was the first year-round home on Alki Point; dedicated steamer boats conveyed guests to the Bernards’ shore from Seattle’s Colman Dock across the bay for receptions, card parties, or as the Seattle Daily Times documented in August 1906, “one of the largest out-of-door entertainments given this summer.”

History isn’t entirely clear why the family sold Fir Lodge in 1907 to the fledgling Seattle Auto and Driving Club. The city’s early adopters of the horseless carriage would “auto” around the bay on a bumpy plank road for supper on the open-air porch. Over the years, a layer of surrounding apartment buildings obscured the view of the water, and Fir Lodge became a rooming house.

In 1950, new owners bestowed a name, Alki Homestead, enshrined on a vertical neon sign on the roof that resembled the stopper of a very low and squatty bottle. They also gave the place a new identity, a restaurant, that would ensure its status as community fixture.

The Alki Homestead back when it was still Fir Lodge, with an entrance facing Elliott Bay, and a postcard circa 1955–1971.

After a nine-month stint in Santa Fe, Mike Easton returned to Seattle in the spring of 2010 and signed on for a proper chef role at Lecosho, a new restaurant downtown. Owner Matt Janke had founded Matt’s in the Market, back when it was a legendarily small Pike Place Market hangout, and Mike admired everything his new boss had accomplished with a couple of hot plates and great ingredients. He plunged into this new challenge with characteristic zeal, even helping build tables in the weeks before the open.

Though Mike has only positive things to say about Lecosho and its owners, the long hours of opening a restaurant ground him down. Serving both lunch and dinner left zero time for creative pursuits, no outlet where Mike could channel all the ideas kicking around in his head. He’d spend 18 hours coaxing maximum output from a modest kitchen. At the end of it, the easiest thing to do was have a drink. To make the stress go away, just for a bit. “And the next easiest thing to do is have another drink.” To stumble home at 2am, only to get up and do it again, a slightly hungover, stressed-out shadow of yourself. Working an opposing schedule, “I was seeing him even less,” Victoria remembers. “And Pilar was getting older,” morphing from toddler to full-fledged little girl with curls like her mom’s.

Today Mike thinks about this stage of his life in terms of entropy. Anything unmanaged—anything you can’t beat back with tools or tinkering or iterative process—tends toward chaos. When stress becomes the norm, chaos does too. “Every other thing you might care about in your life sort of falls by the wayside.” Succumb to that stress and those things might disappear completely.

Maybe six months in, Mike got sick. Really sick. Bacterial pneumonia sick—an infection of the lining of his lungs that quick trips to the Pike Place Market health clinic on his lunch break couldn’t fix. Every cough felt like a kick in the ribs. The only way to get better, the doctor told him, was start taking care of himself. Beginning with at least two weeks off work.

Resting up, Mike engaged in serious self-examination about balancing his chosen profession and his mental health, a topic that would become a major discussion point across his industry nearly a decade later. He wanted to be a part of his daughter’s milestones, and he wanted to continue being a husband. Jack Kelly remembers batting around business ideas with his friend, admiring the model of joints like Pecos Pit—lunch only, counter service, lines out the door. Mike thought about the original Matt’s in the Market, where Matt Janke made the most of his tiny setup, but mostly about Salumi, a tiny place that made something affordable and great. Armandino Batali and his daughter Gina worked the hours they wanted, and limited the menu on their own terms. “It was unapologetically outside the norm.” Outside the norm seemed the best place for him, too.

• • • • 

Alki Homestead’s first chef, Robert Gruye, honed his culinary skills on a naval aircraft carrier during WWII. He prepared midcentury delicacies like prime rib and fruit cocktail out of a can, topped with a maraschino cherry. The sticky pudding dessert began as a can of condensed milk, boiled for hours until its contents cohered into something you could slide out of its metal container and slice, like canned cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. His daughter, now Catherine Gruye Alexander, remembers running through the dining room as a very young girl in the 1950s, “being placated with shirley temples so I wouldn’t be underfoot.”

Robert Gruye also made great platters of chicken, fried in an iron skillet. That tradition carried on when Doris Nelson and her husband, Elmer, bought the place in the early 1960s. Doris greeted diners with a long cigarette holder in one hand and a cocktail in the other. By then, banks of white wooden windows enclosed the wraparound porch, presumably to accommodate more customers. Doris added her own aesthetic stamp: tablecloths, chandeliers dripping with cut glass, flowery carpets, and enough ornate table lamps and fussy sofas and sideboards to fill a dozen Victorian parlors. The peak grandma decor became part of the experience, along with china platters heaped with that fried chicken. Today the term “chicken dinner” connotes picnic tables and flip-flops, maybe even a bucket, but Alki Homestead represented an era when going to a restaurant was an occasion worthy of a suit and tie, even if you’d need a napkin to protect them from grease and gravy stains.

Indeed, it usually was an occasion, a birthday or anniversary or wedding or graduation dinner. Something that involved the extended family. “It was special to go there,” remembers Clay Eals, who spent five years as executive director of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society and helped the building gain official landmark status in 1995. “At the same time, it wasn’t snooty.”

When Doris Nelson died in 2004, her family put the building up for sale. Tom Douglas, by then Seattle’s indisputable restaurant king, later told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer he tried to buy the restaurant: “It’s a historic treasure.” One where so many people forged personal connections over chicken dinners, before the fire brought them to an irreparable halt.

• • • • 

Mike Easton’s plan to get his own life back on healthier ground began around 6am on May 2, 2011. He left his condo at Seventh and Madison and walked down the sloped streets, toward Pike Place Market, as the sun came up. He’d made an arrangement with the owner of Procopio, that gelato shop on the Pike Hill Climb where he scooped as a new arrival a dozen years earlier. Today, Mike unlocked the door, pulled himself an Americano on the house machine and stood at a tall table he’d built from repurposed banister spindles and a slab of speckled granite. As the sky grew lighter, he grabbed a handful of flour and set to work.

After he left Lecosho, Mike thought about pasta, the hundreds of shapes and textures derived from two hands, two ingredients—flour and eggs—and an imagination. Every one has a purpose—inch-wide pappardelle noodles stand up to a bolognese; bell-shaped campanelle has a hollow center and ruffled edges that encourage a medium-voltage arrabbiata sauce to cling to each forkful.

Il Nido’s labor-intensive raviolini.

Image: Kyle Johnson

Of course, the mechanic’s son also dug the tools. Mike began with just a hand-cranked roller and a big brass pasta extruder called a torchio that required full-body application of arm muscle to transform dough into shapes. His eBay spoils included an 80-year-old cast-iron cavatelli maker. In the months of formulating the plan that became Il Corvo, he bought every book and watched every YouTube video of Italian grandmas he could find. In 2011, nesting a popup business inside another was uncommon stuff. But Mike only wanted to serve lunch from 11 to 3, so he could be home for dinner. Keep the chaos at bay. That morning in early May, when the stalls at Pike Place Market came to life around 7am, Mike left his dough to rest and climbed the stairs to cruise the produce stands, just as he’d done in Tuscany. He focused on ill-shapen or gently bruised seconds ideal for sauces. Three hours later, he had reverse engineered four pasta dishes, based on his market finds.

Back at his worktable, he opened up his laptop and tapped out a succinct WordPress blog post to announce Il Corvo’s debut menu: “Roasted eggplant raviolini with marjoram-tomato sauce. Bigoli with cured tuna heart, parsley, pepperoncini, and egg yolk. Maccheroni alla ‘telefono’ (pomadoro [sic] and chunks of fresh mozzarella). Farfalle with Zoe’s spicy coppa and fresh sugar snap peas, butter and parmesan.” Then, he tweeted. And waited to see if anybody would come.

• • • • 

Meanwhile, the Alki Homestead remained in boarded-up limbo. The cabin’s historical landmark status, the thing that had no doubt saved the structure from a long-ago wrecking ball, posed a catch-22 after the fire. Some engineering reports said the Homestead couldn’t be saved, that it was too far gone. Fire damage aside, rotted logs meant taking the whole building apart, something historical protections forbade. Community and preservation groups organized a rally in 2010 that drew 200 people plus local politicians who made speeches urging action. The Washington Trust placed the building on its list of the state’s Most Endangered Places.

The owner floated presentations to the city landmarks board and met with various architects. Unable to find a buyer with ample cash and an eye for a perversely complex project, the community landmark sat, a target for dampness and vandalism.

In 2014, a lanky silvery-haired guy named Dennis Schilling took a fortuitous route home. Schilling was working on a building he owned, a vintage apartment building on nearby Alki Avenue. The battered brick Shoremont complex was his favorite kind of project: resuscitating a neglected structure from a more careful age of architecture back into commercial viability. He habitually drove different streets, to observe the neighborhood, but on some level seeking a challenge to take on whenever the current one was done.

One afternoon, a rambling commute home to Mercer Island took him past the Alki Homestead, a boarded-up patch of darkness and dead grass in blocks otherwise dense with life. Schilling noted the For Sale sign out front and wondered why the cabin still hadn’t been repaired. It’s easy to envision him in a suit back when he was a real estate lawyer, but these days he’s more of a polo shirt and jeans guy who left office life and taught himself to fix up old buildings. Challenges that might send other potential buyers running—walls falling apart, no foundation, compromised roofs—are the very things that pique his interest.

Seattle has few surer paths to profit than real estate these days, but Schilling’s as much an outlier in his field as the Alki Homestead. “I’m not doing this for sheer philanthropy,” he explained to me one day at the Starbucks around the corner. “But I don’t mind making less money.” For him, the problem-solving is the fun part; buying this ravaged building was like taking on an expensive, sooty Sudoku.

The current dining room, fireplace restored to its original simplicity.

Image: Kyle Johnson

In 2015, Schilling took ownership of the Homestead’s blackened interior and chopped-up roof. The biggest problem wasn’t technically fire damage—it was six years of rain. Treading on the spongy floors felt like walking on a trampoline.

Schilling and his son, Matt, cleared debris untouched since the night before the fire, then tackled those rotten logs in the bottom corner of what was once the Bernard family dining room. Owning the building freed them from some of the requirements of a licensed contractor, so the Schillings schlepped Western Douglas fir logs on the ferry from Orcas Island in their big red van and MacGyvered various approximations of pioneer-era construction techniques. As the elder Schilling puts it, “It’s sort of like unweaving a sweater, and then weaving it back together while still wearing the sweater.”

Clay Eals and the historical society helped the Schillings reconcile occupancy requirements (you need insulation) with historical ones (don’t change a thing). Grant money helped strip away decades of corrosion so the neon beacon glowed once again, illuminated proof of an imminent new chapter.

• • • • 

That first day at Il Corvo, Mike sold maybe 30 bowls, tossing pasta and sauce on three butane burners set up at the end of the gelato counter. His worktable supplied the bulk of the customer seating, everyone bent over white china bowls. After years of opposing schedules, Victoria remembers, “we could see each other.” They had weekends as a family. Though Mike’s photography interest hadn’t yet graduated to full-blown obsession, he shot photos for his daily WordPress dispatches and sometimes added a bit of text, colorfully spelled yet totally engaging sidebars on the legends around particular pasta shapes or sauces. Mike Easton was doing Instagram before Instagram was a thing.

Il Corvo felt like an experiment, one conducted a mere hour or so before customers showed up to eat. Some mornings, plans for a dish would implode right before doors opened, so he’d only have two options to list on the chalkboard. An entire tabletop of ravioli would end up in the trash because they weren’t sealing properly, he recalls. “The amount of pasta dough I have personally put in compost in the past 11 years would be shocking.”

When foot traffic dried up after summer and the restaurant hit a September lull, Mike figured it was time to pack it in. Victoria, then a manager at Kasala, a furniture company just upstairs, encouraged him to stick at it until the holidays. Easton credits a Seattle Times writeup that November for turning things around. Il Corvo’s physical capabilities maxed out around 100 bowls of pasta a day, and soon dishes started selling out by close. Then they sold out by 1:30.

November 30, 2012, the day Mike closed Il Corvo in preparation for its new permanent address in Pioneer Square, was the busiest on record. The line snaked up the steps of the Hill Climb—175 bowls of pasta by 2pm. Victoria left her merchandising job to leap full-time into restaurant life when the new Il Corvo opened the following January.

Now, Il Corvo’s daily dispatches happen on Instagram. The line happens on James Street, a steep hill where pasta hopefuls appear to be loitering on the hypotenuse of a right triangle. One recent Monday, I queued up at the end of the block just after 11 and made it to the counter to place my order at 12:45. Passersby offered words of encouragement—“It’s worth it!”—and locals and tourists engaged in the sort of freewheeling chat that only happens when everybody has run out of things to do on their phone.

Mike’s infinite combinations pledge no fealty to Italian ingredients, or even the Northwest: In late summer, saffron cream sauce coats orecchiette big as quarters and sprinkled with astonishingly fresh local corn. During the early days he’d fold the Hatch chiles of his home state into wintertime carbonara or maltagliati with cauliflower and ricotta.

In some ways, the mindset behind Il Corvo’s remarkable bowls is overwhelmingly technical: Find the best of what’s in season; devise a dish. Pair it with a shape from a vast pasta repertoire that does the ingredients justice. Finally, crucially, enforce harmony among all these components. A pasta shape, its sauce, and the cut of the other ingredients—delicate dice of pancetta? rustically chopped asparagus?—function like an f-stop or exposure in photography. Tinker with it enough, and myriad technical decisions fuse into art.

At home, the Eastons took walks. They bought a house in West Seattle, and Mike worked on his culty BMW 2002 in the driveway. Pasta, engines, photography: Whatever the interest, he says, “I go hard down the rabbit hole.” He used a growing collection of lenses and vintage cameras to document Pilar cooking in the kitchen, Victoria in repose. Little moments in a life made possible by bowls of $10 pasta.

• • • • 

After three years of work, the Schillings started to think about who might occupy this unusual building once it was done. They considered turning the Alki Homestead into an event center, but dealing with brides seemed outside their general skill set. WeWork–style space? Coffee shop? Even a sushi restaurant briefly entered the conversation. Nothing seemed right. A vaguely worded For Rent notice on Craigslist garnered few responses.

The Schillings’ electrician had met Mike and knew he was looking around for a space in West Seattle. The chef came by, navigated the hole-ridden floors and admired the craftsmanship in a space still dark from boarded-up windows.

“Thank you for bringing me out,” he said. “It’s just too big.”

He and Victoria were pondering, casually, what to do next. A second lunch restaurant, the astonishingly great Pizzeria Gabbiano, lasted less than two years, due perhaps to a tricky location. Il Corvo’s particular magic seemed impossible to reproduce, says Victoria, but something close to their house could help them sustain that work-life balance. A month in Spain had them thinking about a tapas bar, something where Mike could dial in the menus and leave for the night (the larger margins on liquor sales would be nice, too). Definitely not another restaurant. Definitely not one that seats 64 people—and that’s before you factor in the back patio.

Six months passed before he asked Victoria if she would come see the space with him. “I can’t get it out of my head.”

By the time the Eastons returned, the Schillings had pulled the plywood off the windows that line the former veranda. Maybe 400 small panes, shattered when cold water from firefighters’ hoses met hot glass, now appeared brand new. Victoria looked at the light streaming in. Even with the dust and disarray and holes in the floor, “I could envision a beautiful restaurant in here.”

Mike Easton, Victoria Diaz Easton, and their daughter Pilar at the restored Alki Homestead.

Image: Kyle Johnson

It’s a little weird to see Mike Easton roaming a dining room, like a musician who used to play dark, beer-soaked clubs suddenly performing in an arena. When I finally make it to my first dinner at Il Nido, a well-practiced server leads me to a seat in a repurposed church pew, just like the ones at Il Corvo. Geometric chairs help nudge that log interior away from kitsch, toward the eclectic and timeless. An antler chandelier hangs before the fireplace of smooth stones William Bernard once picked up on the Alki shoreline.

Just getting into this room feels like an accomplishment. Il Nido opens its books 30 days in advance; every midnight offers a new chance to score a table a month in the future. I set my alarm for 12:15 am to have any prayer of scoring a two top.

Mike has inherited the question lobbed at Dennis Schilling from the minute he bought the building: “When are chicken dinners coming back?” Sometimes Mike jokes that maybe he could do chicken parmigiana. It’s just a joke. Il Nido serves pasta too labor-intensive for the crowds at Il Corvo. Mike recalls a stretch of mornings this summer where he spent hours fashioning just one dish—the testaroli, an Italian crepe variation cooked until firm and bubbled, then cut into diamonds, boiled again, and tossed with a bright pesto. It arrives fanned out over squash blossoms, and accompanied by admiring gasps from other diners. Other mornings his kitchen fills raviolini with parmesan and kale, to serve in a brodo of prosciutto and prosecco.

But pasta’s just part of a menu that brings Mike’s Tuscan education to its full realization, from braised rabbit legs to a sausage subtly charged with lavender. In the kitchen, he instilled some policies geared toward his crew’s mental health. When someone gets off work for the night, “it is my pleasure to buy you a shift drink,” he says. “Anything you’d like.” But drinks are one and done. He figures the process of getting off a stool, changed, and ready to go elsewhere is self-corrective. “By the time you’re in your car you’re like, shit I should just go home.”

One afternoon, Victoria sits in the dining room she designed, beneath the windows that drew her to the space, and muses on the unexpected crowds. Mike’s trying to hire more staff, she says, but the long hours are a temporary investment, and Pilar, now 11, is old enough to spend a good part of her summer break hanging around her dad’s restaurant. Victoria pauses when Mike approaches from the kitchen for a quick spousal update.

“We’re going to go for a skateboard break.”

Moments later, father and daughter flash down the alley behind the restaurant. Mike’s changed out of his black clogs; Pilar’s ahead of him, her purple sneakers maneuvering a smaller version of her dad’s deck. He can’t be gone long on a day this busy; just 15 minutes up the Alki boardwalk and 15 minutes back. But every carve of their longboards holds ambition and fatherhood, creative fulfillment and commercial viability in the balance, propelling them both forward against the sparkle of Elliott Bay.

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