An Interview with the Man Who Makes Awesome Handmade Pasta Lunches Inside a Gelato Shop
Il Corvo is the oddest restaurant in town. It's located inside Procopio gelato on the Pike Street Hillclimb (near the Zig Zag and live bug zoo/gift shop Seattle Bug Safari). It's lunch only, cash only, and handmade pasta only, four kinds a day, $8.18 a plate (the extras—wheaty bread, maybe a dish of pickled onions and peppers, slices of the best mortadella you've ever had, all housemade—are a few dollars each). Mike Easton—former chef at nearby Lecosho, former chef/owner of Wallingford's Bizzarro—started Il Corvo about six weeks ago. He says he's never going to serve dinners or be open on weekends; if anything, Il Corvo might be a stepping-stone to making more pasta, for retail and restaurant sale.
Last week, Easton served, among other things, big, cushy maccheroni with spicy housemade sausage and chard (in a feat of understatement, he told people, "It's not like normal macaroni"); nutty-tasting, firm pappardelle made with farro flour and black pepper, dressed in three-cheese sauce ("makes me imagine a white linen suit and sand between my toes," he wrote on ilcorvopasta.wordpress.com); little canoes of cavatelli with a sauce of Walla Walla onions and anchovies, cooked down until sweet and rich with just a hint of the sea (a perfect example, according to Easton, of Gestalt theory); a salty-dirty-hot puttanesca with the best, most nourishing-tasting spaghetti ever.
I went in and ate two days in a row last week, watching Easton make lunch for people on three butane burners and a countertop pasta cooker while he explained his shapes and sauces, scooped gelato, rang people up on the register, talked shop with people from downtown's fancy new RN74, and made teenage boys say "please." On the third day, anonymity be damned, I introduced myself. After we discussed my not-so-positive review of Lecosho when he was the chef there (I was right about everything, he said, but it all sounded unduly personal; it wasn't personal at all, I said, and sorry if it sounded that way), we shook hands and sat down and talked.
Why are you so obsessed with fresh pasta?
I get asked that question a lot... I always loved Italian food, and after I studied in Italy, pasta was just something that stuck with me that was so simple. Just the simplest ingredients, and how you mix them and what you do with those two ingredients—flour and eggs—really have endless amounts of results, depending on how stiff you make the dough, how long you knead it, what shapes you make, what thickness. And I kind of just started to really geek out about that aspect of it, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn... I'm also a pasta tool junkie, as you can tell [he points to an 80-year-old cast-iron cavatelli maker on the table], so I tirelessly search for new pasta tools, which is another—it's just part of the addiction, I think.
And the fact that fresh pasta is the best thing in the world to eat?
Yes, that's pretty much it. I mean, who doesn't love a bowl of fresh pasta?
I salute you.
And you've known [Procopio owner] Brian [Garrity] for...
I've known Brian since the first day I moved to Seattle. I moved to Seattle in June of '99, I arrived to town, and a friend of mine was working here, and I came to visit him; I had a scoop of gelato, I met Brian, we chatted a little bit, and they were like, "Hey, we're looking for some counter help..." So I was like, "Yeah, sure, I'll pull coffee and scoop gelato." I worked for the summer—I actually moved to Seattle not to be in the food industry. I actually moved here to be in the music industry. And so I took a gelato job because I was like, it's perfect, I work mornings, I pull some coffees, I go out at night, I work with bands...
The dream of the '90s.
Yeesssss, the dream of the '90s.
And look at you now.
Well, I always kept cooking jobs, just to make do and get by. I got to a point in my music career where I could quit my day job. I was working with Martin Feveyear up at Jupiter Studios, I was doing independent engineering... I was a full-time engineer for two years. And I was miserable... after two years I was like, you know what, I love cooking. I never get tired of cooking. And I decided to really take it seriously—go to Italy, study there, that's when a friend and I bought Bizzarro Italian Cafe... now I've come full circle, and I'm back where I started.
Because you have a daughter now, and you wanted to scale back?
I just got tired of the lifestyle... at a certain point, cooking is a young man's game... at a certain point, you have to decide to be that clipboard chef with a pristine white coat and not get dirty and just direct people, and let the young men cook on the line, or you have to figure out how to do something else. I could never do the clipboard chef thing—I just can't do it. I love to cook, and I want to cook. But the lifestyle was wearing me out. You work long hours, you get off late at night, there's liquor ready and available—
And bath salts—
—and bath salts—you know you have all the access to that, so every day you wake up a little more hungover and exhausted than the day before, and you just repeat the cycle. To the point where on my day off, where I wanted to be hanging out with my daughter and going to the park, I was so exhausted... so I had a revelation that I was just done with it.
What's a normal, say, Wednesday like for you?
A normal Wednesday would be my alarm goes off at 5 a.m., I get ready for work, walk down to work from my First Hill condo, get here right around 6, make a coffee, put the bread dough in the mixer and get that ready... and then just take inventory of what pastas I have, kind of think about what's up at the Market and what's fresh, and—just as I sip my coffee—decide what pastas I want to do that day, and what sauces are available, and then make some doughs, roll out some pasta. I usually have a cook come in around 8:30 and help me roll out the pasta, because two people can really make it go a lot quicker. Get the line set up, get the sauces prepped, open up at 11, cook some food, and at three o'clock, shut down, clean up, pick up my daughter from daycare around 5, go home and have a glass of wine with my wife and put my daughter to bed.
Or yesterday, when you were going to get a haircut and have some beer.
I was—that was an exception to the rule. And I actually went and visited my old stomping ground, Lecosho, because I was walking by and saw some old friends sitting at the bar, and they have Alpine pilsner, which is one of my favorites. So I sat in there and had a nice little pint. And went down to the barbershop.
Where do you get your hair cut?
I go to Colman [Building] barbershop. They do an amazing job... they finish you with hot lather and a straight razor all the way around.
Watching the pastas for the last few weeks, you're not doing any asparagus or peas or anything like that, and I'm wondering why you hate spring.
I don't hate spring at all! It's just timing... I sell a bowl of pasta for eight dollars and 18 cents. I use really good flour; I use really good eggs. I use really good quality ingredients. For me to be able to sell that pasta at that price—so I can keep my lunch under $10 for people—I can't spend $7 on a bunch of asparagus. I just can't. So a lot of times I like to wait until it's a little closer to the end of the season for things, because I have a great relationship with Frank's, and I'll be able to get 'em much cheaper. A lot of times I buy stuff that's their seconds—that are absolutely integrally perfect but maybe don't look perfect for a stand... but I do love spring stuff. And you know what it was? It was the pig. The pig kind of took over the menu for the past couple weeks, because the pig showed up, so we did Bolognese, we did lots of stuff. [His blog Mike Easton's Charcuterie will make vegetarians' eyes bleed.] But it's funny, as you mention that, I literally today was planning, okay, next week's menu, snap peas are at the farmers market, they're coming in now, beautiful asparagus is coming in now. You will be seeing that next week. [That's this week!]
Do you have a favorite pasta shape? Is that like a Sophie's Choice kind of thing?
You know, I kind of fall in love with a new pasta shape each week. [He looks up at the ceiling moonily.] I really do. I kind of rediscovered spaghetti and macaroni, because I have this device called the Torchio—it's a giant long tube that has little pasta dies, and you actually can extrude those pastas. The spaghetti, the macaroni are a labor of love. You don't need a workout if you make those every day. It's funny, because those are the two—you ask any American, name two pastas, they say spaghetti and macaroni... but since I started making them here, and worked on the doughs, I really fell in love with them again. And you realize, oh, this is what that pasta's supposed to be like. And next week it'll be something else. That's why I do this job. I honestly love it.
And why do you refuse to go to the Bug Zoo?
I think the name says it all. It's pretty obvious.
There's more than 40 different bug species!
I grew up in New Mexico. I had scorpions, tarantulas, black widows, rattlesnakes in my own backyard. There's nothing exciting about that to me.