As a kid growing up on a farm in rural Washington state, one of my favorite journeys was to the bright lights and big smells of Tacoma where there lived an Old Spaghetti Factory. Knowing little of food I didn't pull out of the ground or pick off a tree, this was the absolute pinnacle of gastronomy.
Years later, in a postcard-sized restaurant in Rome, my expectations of what pasta can—and should—be were forever skewed. During winter's chilly grip on Santa Fe, all I want is a mound of these beautiful, fresh noodles to bring back those memories, and to warm my belly and bones.
Beyond being rustic, tender, rich, chewy and colorful, what is it that makes handmade pasta so special? I posed this question to the foremost pasta expert I know, New Mexico native and Seattle resident Mike Easton. Easton is a two-time James Beard Award nominee (2016 and 2017 for Best Chef in the Northwest) for his pasta-only lunch restaurant, Il Corvo. A small space perched halfway up a steep hill climb out of Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood, Il Corvo is as famous for its out-the-door lines as it is for the quality of its daily fresh-made dishes.
"For restaurants, handmade pasta can be a daunting task," Easton says. "Bad pasta is an incredible letdown. But well-made, fresh pasta is something that speaks directly to your soul."
He continues: "At its most basic, pasta has two ingredients. But it's the intention behind what you want the ingredients to become that make them so special. If you are a restaurant putting intention behind what you're doing, it will take almost no effort to make pasta that will take people to that place in their heart where comfort lives."
In need of this comfort, I gathered up a couple of friends, well-educated in pasta, and we headed downtown to find us some.
Our first stop, Trattoria A Mano (227 Galisteo St., 982-3700), dedicates a good portion of its menu to house-made pastas—10, to be exact. An open kitchen allows diners a view of the line, which opens with one person expertly cranking out fresh pasta.
Chef Michael Leonard, in addition to having a Sicilian grandma, spent years perfecting his pasta game under California-based pasta master Evan Funke. Each of the pasta dishes on menu are inspired by regional dishes of Italy. With the help of our encyclopedia of a server, Ari, we chose the spinach pappardelle in duck ragu and pecorino sardo ($24), saffron fusilli with Maine lobster, leek, artichoke and roasted tomato ($28) and stringozzi alla chitarra with cacio e pepe and pecorino romano ($19).
Our pastas arrived in warmed bowls, hugging their comforting contents. The tagliatelle glistened in a light, garlic-tinged ragu spotted with tender chunks of duck. The curls of the saffron fusilli were punctuated with whole, tender lobster claws and sweet chunks of knuckle, contrasted beautifully by the crisp acidity of roasted tomato and finely shaved pieces of artichoke. The pasta itself was dense and chewy, its saffron flavor accented by the rich, salty brine of lobster stock. Lastly, the stringozzi, named for the guitar-like tool used to cut it, sparkled with expertly emulsified butter. The thin noodles held their own against the richness of their fellow contents: butter, cheese and cracked black pepper. The simplicity of this delicate dish belies the difficulty in executing it properly; it's easy to mess up. But here, not only was this pasta created with focused intention, the entire experience was, from open kitchen to decor.
Our next stop, Il Piatto (95 W Marcy St., 984-1091), boasts many accolades for its chef, Matt Yohalem. Also exciting was the potential of pastas made from "Sangre de Cristo Mills whole wheat flour grown & ground in New Mexico."
However, our server informed us that of the seven pastas on the night's menu, only three types (ravioli, pappardelle, and squid ink spaghetti) were handmade. Disappointed our options were limited, we ordered small plates of the gorgonzola and walnut ravioli with sundried tomato pesto ($16), pumpkin ravioli with brown sage butter, pine nuts and pecorino romano ($15), and pappardelle in duck ragu with red wine and mascarpone ($17).
As we awaited our hopefully well-intentioned dishes, my table became strangely quiet, our attentions pulled to the decidedly discomforting: f-bombs loudly dropped by an employee behind the bar; shrill, punctuated screams coming from a curtained-off room across the entry; the pungent scent of a long-past-its-prime bouquet of lilies festering just inches from our table.
The food did little to quiet our unease. The ravioli arrived, four to an order, on cold salad plates. My gorgonzola and walnut ravioli were watery inside and smothered under a thick sea of cream sauce, parted by large wells of oil. The sun-dried tomato pesto a dollop of lukewarm, foam-like chunks of dried-out tomato. My dining mate's ravioli were well-cooked but, sadly, offered no hint of pumpkin or sage brown butter flavors due to his dish being, strangely—as it wasn't in the menu description—carpeted with a thick, salty layer of oily, charred tomatoes. Our remaining diner fared better with the pappardelle. The pasta itself was nicely made, but came drowning in a garlic-heavy swamp of ragu, more of a stew than a sauce. "This whole experience makes me feel like I just went to a Long Island wedding buffet," she concluded.
Thank goodness for wine, because the chianti, at least, was delicious.