Cascina Spinasse: Capitol Hill’s Ode to Piedmont
Having a baby significantly diminishes most parents’ capacity for dining out, at least in the types of establishments they likely used to frequent. When Bentley Danger was born a year ago, Jonas and I were excited to take him to all our favorite haunts. One day when he was about two weeks old, we were strolling about downtown trying to get the hang of not ramming people with the Orbit and we decided to pop in for a quick early evening chat with our favorite bartender and friend Murray at the Zig Zag Café. Imagine our surprise when, in pushing through the door we had so often breezed past in years past, we noticed for the first time the “No Minors” sign and briefly wondered “Does that apply to babies too?”
Murray sadly let us know that babies are indeed considered minors despite the fact that they can’t even hold their heads up, much less try to sneak cocktails when mummy and daddy aren’t looking, so we chatted with him outside for a bit, walked away with our tail between our legs, and have been back exactly twice in the last year. We tried to keep doing the restaurant thing for a short while, but it’s a little disconcerting to the waitstaff when you show up for your 8pm reservation at 8am because you have days and nights mixed up due to the somnambulism that occurs during life with a newborn, so we decided to take a brief pause on the dining out stage.
We’re over a year in now and we don’t exactly have to twist Grandma’s arm to get her to spend the evening with her perfect grandson, so we’re officially back on the dining circuit. In an attempt to fill the gaping, year-wide hole in our must-try cache, we decided to start at the top of the list: Cascina Spinasse est. 2008- Capitol Hill’s answer to the call of Seattle’s Piemonte-philes.
Knowing that reservations are difficult to come by at Spinasse, we figured we’d give it a last-minute long shot, and if not go and wait for stools that are seated first-come, first-served around the open-plan kitchen. Lo and behold, a beseeching phone call led to us snagging the last open reservation of the night at the hottest four-top in the house- right by the picture window with a great view of the entire space. Spinasse typically seats communally, with several larger tables that vary in size due to the night’s expected reservations, so while it was great to have the four top for our party of four, next time we’ll plan to make new friends at one of the communal tables.
I settled right into the the carta dei vini and was very pleasantly surprised, given my proclivity, to note that there are a mere seven bottles of white wine compared with close to 60 reds- fabulous, and as it should be! Of course this is also indicative to the fact that Piedmont is globally famous for their reds, and not a single wine from the list strays outside the region. There is more than ample selection of Barbera’s, Nebbiolo’s, Barbaresco’s and Barolo’s- oh, and a few Dolcetto’s thrown in as well for diners feeling like something a bit lighter. On the whole, the wine list was pared down perfectly and very manageable- A+. I did feel there was a bit of a disconnect in the waiter’s training, however, when I asked which of the Barbera’s had the “Superiore” designation (which specifies minimum oak aging requirements, among other things) and our waiter was uncertain what that meant. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful ‘07 Nebbiolo from the Langhe by Produttori del Barbaresco that was just the right amount of corposo to match the richness of the pasta and the slight drizzle coming down outside.
Once we were settled with wine, the waiter brought over a delicate and wonderful amuse bouche of crostini with marinated cucumbers that was the absolute perfect palate-whetting decadence. An ideal amount of time elapsed and our antipasti arrived: Fra’mani salame($11) and Fagiolini Verdi con uovo e pecorino stagionato ($10). The salami selection that evening boasted two types that complemented one another very well, but the real star of that course was the green bean platter. Who new that shaving a bit of egg and aged sheep’s cheese over green beans could be so delicious- simple yet a very elegant way to commence our meal.
The first course of Tajarin al ragu ($18) (tajarin is simply Piedmontese dialect for tagliolini pasta) was so inspiring it spawned a homemade version of tagliolini with ragu the next night! It would probably have been more proprio Piemontese of us to have our tagliolini with burro e salvia which was also on offer since ragu is really of Bolognese origin, but given the slight chill of autumn in the air, the choice was a good one. It is important to note here that all pasta at Spinasse is handmade in house, and I did get a taste of my friend’s maltagliati that was really wonderfully cut, cooked and prepared, however I will say that my tajarin could have been cut just a touch larger. It was nearly as fine as angel hair, which I think led to it being cooked just past al dente as well as having a harder time standing up to as rich and hearty a sauce as ragu. The ragu itself was so good I don’t think I said a word during the entire first course. I’m of the opinion that the primi piatti are the real standouts at Spinasse, which is as it should be in a real Piedmontese restaurant. In fact I would be tempted next time to damn tradition and order two courses of pasta instead of taking a secondo at all, which is not to say our next course wasn’t well-prepared in its own right.
We were pleased that we had the foresight to share a main course, as there is no way post-antipasti, pasta and wine that we would have been able to take on our own individual entrée’s. We selected the Piccione con barbabietole di Chioggia e lenticchie ($28). Squab itself is something I saw on quite a few menu’s in Italy, however I was supremely curious how the Chioggia beets would turn out, as every beet I encountered in Italy was old and shriveled beyond the point of recognition. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the beets were in the stilo Americano, which is to say still gorgeous in color, taste, and form. The lentils were a great addition to the plate- one of those unexpectedly pleasant flavor combinations that works 100%. The squab was such an epic success that I hate to have to let down my readers, but there was not a chance I would possibly have been able to squeeze in even a drop of dessert after such a great meal!
We took a peek at the dolci just to see what to save room for next time, and it was very regionally accurate as well, boasting the usual suspects bunet, panna cotta con mele di fiori di cardi, and a gianduja semifreddo that looked amazing among others, so I really will have to use some self-restraint next time and save some room. The cheese course would have also been tempting as they had a creamy La Tur on offer, but alas I was defeated! I can only imagine what the brave souls who order the menu degustazione ($75), which offers a tasting of every antipasto, primo, and secondo on the menu must be feeling- what an endeavor.
We perused their selection of post-dinner beverages which were– you guessed it– regionally focused, including many grappa’s, amaro’s and even a spicy Barolo Chinato not for the faint of heart (for someone who wants half-perfume half-wine, if you ask me!). The actual dessert wine was very limited due to the fact that Piedmont is not a big producer in that arena- in fact all they had was a Moscato d’ Asti. I think a Brachetto d’ Aqui Terme would have fleshed out the selection, and if it were me I would have broken with tradition in that department and offered a Sicilian Passito or a monk-made Vin Santo despite their being from other regions. The experience on the whole was well worth the visit, and I most certainly will return to discover what new seasonal delights deep fall will bring, considering it is the gastronomic season to most revere in Piedmont. Perhaps some fresh, white Albese truffles will find their way to Spinasse, in which case I will find my way to Paradiso!