Osteria la Spiga
What's Been There All Along
1401 Broadway (at Union St, in the Harvard Market), 323-8881. Lunch Mon-Fri 11 am-3 pm; dinner Mon-Wed 5:30-10 pm (Thurs-Sat 5:30-11 pm); closed Sundays.
It's always the mascarpone that wrecks me, and I'm not what you would call a dessert person. And yet there I am, almost every time, on a short lunch break with a full belly and a long afternoon of work looming ahead, knowing perfectly well that I will render myself useless and lapse into a food coma if I continue to eat--especially if what I'm going to eat is sweet, creamy, and obscenely decadent. I am referring to the "Il Mascarpone di Ida" ($4.50), a sort of deconstructed tiramisu served in an oversized coffee cup and dusted with cocoa powder, which I can never resist; and what I'm trying to talk about is Osteria la Spiga, a neighborhood restaurant located between where I live and where I work.
I've been faithfully, happily eating at Osteria la Spiga for a long time, but it never occurred to me (until now, my last article for this newspaper) to actually write about it. So in a way, I'm starting with an apology, which is never a graceful thing to do--but whatever. Yes, I've been holding out on you for almost two years, and for that I am sorry.
While I was busy deciding what to write about each week, figuring out which neighborhood to tackle next and what would please my editor most, La Spiga somehow became an invisible but constant part of my everyday life. I can write about practically all of the dishes and their ingredients from memory.
This is where I go when I am too exhausted to cook on a weeknight (if I take the shortcut, I can walk there from my apartment in seven minutes exactly). This is where I go when I consider myself off-duty, and I don't feel like describing every single thing I consume--when I just want to sit and read and mindlessly enjoy something wholesome, reliable, delicious. This has also been the site of countless lunch meetings and birthday meals with people from the office; where I've taken staff writers for their annual reviews; where I've commiserated about stressful, shitty days over late-afternoon lasagne with co-workers; and even where a few job interviews have taken place. (Note to managers: You can tell so much about a potential employee simply by watching him or her maneuver around a platter of grilled sausages. Just FYI.)
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It can be easy to miss Osteria la Spiga if you're not looking for it, since it's on the edge of a retail plaza that includes, among other things, a UPS shipping center, a Domino's Pizza, a Burger King, and a tanning salon (who goes to tanning salons anymore?). A corner storefront on Capitol Hill right next door to a Great Clips franchise is not the most obvious location if you're looking for authentic specialties from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region--home of Parma prosciutto, Modena balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and other heavyweights in the gastronomic pantheon. But check out the sheets of fresh, eggy pasta being made on the tiled countertop in the dining room; notice the precise, deliberately uncomplicated menu heavy on good imported cheeses and cream. When I'm here, I am constantly reminded of how specific, how persistently unfancy, regional Italian cuisine can be.
The specials are also devoted to the minimalist comforts of the region. And while I am ashamed to say that I don't remember everything I've ever tasted (like I said, off-duty--I never, ever took notes while eating here), what I do recall is a lovely blur of dishes featuring things like softly bitter escarole, or hunks of fresh fennel; pork loin, and even the occasional rabbit recipe; seasonal vegetables slicked with really good olive oil and stuffed, along with melting, pungent cheese, into flatbread sandwiches. Puréed legumes are used often here, as well as Umbrian farro (a hulled-wheat grain that's like a cross between cereal and rice). There was a lamb ravioli special--supple pasta pockets bulging with stewed lamb meat and aromatic herbs--that was brothy and exquisite. I also distinctly remember a lunch entrée involving chilled tuna salad with sweet onions; and, last winter, a brilliant soup that was nourishing and flavorful, thick with black-eyed peas, I believe, and shards of silky cabbage. Earlier this summer, I sampled a velvety lasagne layered with an asparagus cream sauce; and just a couple of weeks ago, ignoring the thick summer heat, I tucked into stuffed duck breast ($15) brightened with spices, juniper, and orange zest.
While there are plenty of cozy starches to choose from, I'm also a huge fan of La Spiga's lighter dishes--various antipasti and colorful salads that make me feel (however briefly) like those fiercely stylish women I saw in Rome last spring, sipping thimblefuls of espresso and picking at their little plates in outdoor cafes (except they are leggy European hotties, and I have a stomach shaped like a bagel). The excellent lunchtime caprese salad ($9) has thick mozzarella disks with fragrant basil and gently roasted tomatoes, so as to avoid the "inferior tomato" situation that so often occurs with this dish. (Plus, a properly roasted tomato is like digital cable: Once you get used to how superior it is, you cannot imagine life without it.) Even the house salad ($3.50/$5.50) is remarkable, with its Technicolor blend of romaine, frisée, radicchio, and arugula--staunchly bitter, crisp lettuces complemented by wonderfully acidic dressing and mellowed with slivers of carrots. A wedge of aged pecorino with fig preserves ($6) and smoked scamorza cheese melted into radicchio cups ($6.50) are great foundations for blushing slices of Parma prosciutto fanned across a wooden board ($9.50), or for the more grandiose tortelli alla lastra ($13, serves two)--impossibly soft tortelli, warm from an iron griddle, filled with buttery potato purée and served with various cured meats.
I can't mention Osteria la Spiga's iron griddle--the mighty testo--without properly acknowledging the piadina served to everyone instead of standard-issue rustic table bread (assorted piadina sandwiches with meats, cheeses, and vegetables are also available at lunch). Made on the premises via testo, this amazingly tasty (thank you, butter!) unleavened bread is a symbol of Emilia-Romagna's peasant roots, and an encouraging sign of what this kitchen is capable of when it comes to the different alchemies that can result from flour and water.
I am talking about the handmade pasta, of course. It's easy to get hooked on the warm triangles of piadina, but trust me when I say that it's the pasta dishes ($8.50-$12) you'll still be thinking about when the evening's over--you'll remember pasta details the next day and smile to yourself, like you would in the first 24 hours after a great date. Gnocchi--dense little potato dumplings that practi- cally dissolve on the tongue--arrive in a pond of intense tomato cream sauce. House lasagna is a fluffy mattress stacked with spinach pasta, covered in besciamella sauce. Tortelli are stuffed with impossibly smooth ricotta and greens, soaking up sage butter in a wide bowl. Ribbons of tagliatelle (tender, flat egg noodles with slight rippling on the edges, textured just right) are tossed with house ragù (traditional meat-and-tomato sauce, simmered and softened) or diced porcini mushrooms with cream, butter, and Parmigiano--more superb evidence that good mushrooms don't need much backup.
But as far as I'm concerned, the tagliatelle with porcini cream sauce is merely a stunt double for my absolute favorite and most-ordered dish here: tagliatelle covered in black Acqualagna truffle butter, cream, and melted Parmigiano, topped with cracked black pepper and specks of truffle (about a thumbnail's worth, which is enough). What's better than fresh noodles with butter, cream, and cheese?
The truffles add an earthy, refined-mushroom character that lingers long after you've swallowed the actual pasta--a delicate, luxurious finish that tastes unlike anything else. This isn't on the menu currently, but when it does return, I'll probably be gone, since I'm leaving Seattle before summer's end. I am sad that I can't enjoy it one more time, and if for some reason it is permanently retired from La Spiga's menu, I'll feel terrible that I didn't write about it sooner. I will say that sometimes it's more difficult to articulate what you love most about what's closest to you, to buckle down and describe the deep pleasures of routine and familiarity. And, I will admit, I tend to stubbornly avoid what is most important sometimes--things like paying late bills, buying cat litter, taking that ever-growing bag of sweaters to the cleaners, or saying goodbye.