Having read dozens of blog posts about Justin Neidermeyer's pasta from diners who practically needed an inhaler to punctuate their breathless prose, I was startled by the tajarin with ragu he served at Cascina Spinasse, his new restaurant on 14th and Pike. I ordered the $19 pasta (pronounced tie-yah-REEN) and was presented with a bowl containing a small, twisted mound of spindly pasta filaments, their golden wheat color barely tinted by any sauce. Only a few tablespoons' worth of ground meat speckled the chignon of dough. Hunh, I thought, nonplussed. Is that all there is? Then I twirled up a hank of the strands, put them in my mouth, and discovered the mystery of the dish—each hair-thin noodle was distinct yet not chewy or tough, invisibly coated in whole-hog meatiness. It was a dish worthy of Edith Piaf: frail body, huge voice.In its uncompromising austerity and quality, the pasta seemed a symbol for everything that the young chef wants to be. Neidermeyer is a man who traveled to Italy to intern at Antica Torre in Barbaresco, who erratically sold pasta at farmers markets under the name Pian Pianino ("nice and slow"), and who took a nice, slow time to open up his restaurant, whose rumored location migrated over the years before emerging at the former site of the Globe. All the while, he was whipping up frothy pre-opening excitement with his weekly Monday night dinners at Sitka & Spruce. I tried a handful of times to get him on the phone, but he'd never return my calls, and even colleagues who had met Neidermeyer described him as elusive and mercurial. By the time I walked into Spinasse, six weeks after it opened, I expected the guy to have a pearly white mane and a single horn emerging from his forehead.Spinasse is not perfect. But the tajarin, the apex of my two meals there, proved the restaurant to be both fantastic and fantastical because of the lengths to which Neidermeyer goes to evoke the romance of place. And by place, I don't mean Seattle. I mean the Piedmont region of Italy.The pasta is well-supported by the scenery. Any good restaurant designer treats the space he or she is working with like a stage set. When you sit down in places like the Palace Kitchen, the Corson Building, or Matt's in the Market, the subtle fantasy of these environments transforms you. Even as you're swapping car insurance stories and showing off your new iPhone widget, part of your brain has transported your conversation to a Woody Allen movie or a tiny bistro in the 16th Arrondissement. Give short shrift to atmosphere, as so many chefs opening their first place do, and you undercut your ability to ensorcel your guests, no matter how magical your food.Neidermeyer didn't make that mistake. Spinasse, which hides itself from the street with a lacy scrim, casts the glamour of a period drama. It's not just the long wood-plank tables bordered by worn, high-backed chairs, and not just the bar, which doubles as a pasta-making station, built to age well and ornamented with a tussle of floury scraps that never gets cleared. The walls, lined with antique pasta-making tools near the kitchen and odd little prints and photos above the tables, evoke the scattered history of a family that may or may not exist. And every diner spends at least a few minutes staring dreamily into the half-opened kitchen, framed by wine bottles, to swoon at the quiet intensity of Neidermeyer and his cooks, dressed in open-throated shirts and dark brown pants instead of chef's whites, as they work in front of a backdrop of books and conserves. It's gorgeous, despite the fact that the center of the room gets so overcrowded with voices that you may walk out hoarse—the decibels drop markedly when you sit at the bar. You'll feel the chef's nostalgia for the Piedmont even if you have no idea where the Piedmont is. (It's in the northwest of Italy.)Scrawled on the blackboard, and repeated in slim printed menus, are the night's list of six or seven appetizers, three or four pastas, two entrees, and a couple of desserts. Reflecting its simplicity and focus, the wine list only covers Piedmont producers, some of the most renowned in Italy. And Neidermeyer's dishes change in the tiniest of increments. For example, one week I had an appetizer of beets, shaved fennel, and farro (whole spelt grains), in which the chewy cooked grains had a nuttiness that anchored the sugar rush of the beet slices and the fragrant fennel. Ten days later, the dish had evolved into halved baby beets, as easy to slice through as a ripe peach, with chopped fennel and a little fresh chopped dill; the slight dissonance between the herb and the anise played the same role the farro had.Sometimes the changes track the seasons: A simple bowl of cream-tufted huckleberries marinated in grappa—with just enough of the potent brandy to disperse the berries' aromas to every corner of the palate—morphed into grappa-soaked Italian plums weeks later, when the chef scored a supply of the tree fruit.True to tradition, all Neidermeyer's pastas are designed to be intermediary courses: Your pasta may be a bowl of limpid chicken broth in which a school of minnow-sized agnolotti del plin swim, each thimble-shaped dumpling stuffed with a pork-veal blend scented flickeringly with the medieval aroma of cloves. Or chewy cavatelli, the size of a newborn's top two pinkie joints, tossed with both sexy-funky, umami-laden dried porcinis and a few shavings of fresh porcinis to ornament the dish with their mossy aroma of forest floor.But if you think you should make a meal of one appetizer, one pasta, and one entree per person, you're setting yourself a Herculean task. The main courses, served in foot-wide oval bowls and costing $26 or more apiece, are enough for two. One night I gorged myself on two roasted quails, which rested on a mass of roasted potatoes, boletes, and treviso chicory, splashed here and there with a top-notch balsamic vinegar. The flavors were intense and direct, but the chef had roasted the quail too long, and had not boned out the breast. I found myself chomping through slightly overcooked meat, trying to tease out needle-sized bones with my tongue. On the next visit, though, a friend and I shared a platter of roast goat, looking, as it always does, like charred, hacked bits of meats—ribs sticking out here, the tip of a shoulder blade there. The meat, slow-roasted so long it could have been braised, slipped out of its bony nooks and crannies with the push of a fork.One of the smartest tweaks that Neidermeyer made a few weeks after opening was to dispense with his early insistence that every party eat family-style, requiring every person in a group to eat the same dish. Vegetarians may now dine with omnivores, though you're still limited to one salad, a side dish or two, and one pasta per day. Everything else, including salads, features game or red meat.If there are three of you, it's worth ordering the appetizer platter, on which the chefs line up tiny tastes of all the first courses. They range from folds of prosciutto laid over chunks of brilliantly sweet French melon to Neidermeyer's signature vitello tonnato tradizionale—thin slices of almost-creamy veal topped with a fragrant, unctuous dollop of a sauce made from cured tuna, lemon, and capers. After a couple of meals in which I overstuffed myself, at a final price of $75 a person, here's how I would actually make up a meal for two: one appetizer, one pasta, one meat dish, one dessert, and a carafe of wine from the by-the-glass list. Altogether, that likely won't top $100.Like Fleet Foxes or the Moondoggies, Neidermeyer's restaurant is a timely expression of a previous generation's earnestness as well as of its sound and imagery. In fact, the question of what was real or fake about the place nagged at me so much that I eventually consulted the sharpest postmodernist I know, a guy who considers Jean Baudrillard bedtime reading. I explained to him how, as much as I enjoy Spinasse, the authenticity that it strives for seems more like an exquisite simulacrum. My friend immediately understood. "The restaurant sounds like a high-style appropriation of something low-style, evoking a traditional way of life that may not even exist in Italy anymore," he said. "One of the ironies of the place seems to be the capital investment required to reproduce an idealized poverty to be consumed by the wealthy."He hit it so precisely I had to laugh. Were Neidermeyer one iota less talented, Spinasse would come off as an upscale theme restaurant. But the man cooks with so much intensity that his love for food, more than his love for the Piedmont region, comes through in every dish. That kind of love is both timeless and universal.Price Check
CASCINA SPINASSE 1531 14th Ave., 251-7673, www.spinasse.com. CAPITOL HILL. Open for dinner Monday and Thursday through Sunday.
Beet salad $12
Huckleberries $7 firstname.lastname@example.org