Drawing inspiration from tiny pasta shops in Italy, Mike Easton opened Il Corvo in May. Over the first few months of service, Seattle discovered and fell in love with his handcrafted pastas, hidden within a gelato shop. Open for lunch only, Monday thru Friday, Il Corvo is Easton's answer to the chef's dilemma. Here, he's been able to make incredible, seasonal, small batch dishes as he desires, while still being able to pick his daughter up from daycare at the end of the day. We sat down with him to learn more about him, his pasta, and his latest venture into the world of amaro, an Italian herbal liqueur.
SW: How did you discover your love for pasta?
Easton: I'm not sure to be perfectly honest. It's just something that developed over the years. Something that I realized I kind of have a natural affinity to, that sparked me to research it more. I'd love to tell people I studied pasta making and learned to make pasta in Italy. But that's really not entirely true. When I made pasta in Tuscany it was just so rudimentary and simple. It wasn't really the pasta making I learned in Italy, it was more the Italian cooking mentality. Pasta making was just something I took upon myself, when I owned Bizarro Italian Café and I'd just gotten back from Italy.
I decided we were going to make all of our pasta from now on for the whole restaurant from scratch. Having to make four kilos of pasta a day will make you learn quite a bit about the art of it, especially if your restaurant doesn't have any if you screw up. I'm a guy, so I dipped into tools and gadgetry. I love the nostalgia and antiques so I would happen upon an antique pasta tool and decide to clean it up. I'd use it and realize even though it's 100 years old it still makes pasta as good as anyone can. All these things fueled me. Playing with different flours, really intensely scrutinizing the texture of pastas and what I want from it. All these things made me really dive into it as a field of study.
So what's your favorite antique tool or gadget that you've found over the years?
I like to say my very favorite tool is actually just a standard pasta machine. Just a little roller, but it's from the fifties. It has an incredibly elegant design to it and a really ingenious way that one cutter can actually cut two different sizes of pasta depending on how you dial it in. It's beautiful to look at, just all upon its own and it works fantastic. I have to say if I had to get rid of every single pasta machine I have and just keep one, I'd probably keep that one.
In addition to pasta you're making Amaro. Where did that come from?
Once upon a time a friend of mine was opening a bar out in Waitsburg, WA, called the Jim German Bar, and he was getting ready to launch an event space attached to his bar. I have a habit of giving myself some crazy lofty goal and jumping in with both feet, so I decided I was going to do an insane tasting dinner for a party. We did a 12-course wild boar tasting dinner for 25 people out at this bar. I was designing the menu and the way the evening was going to go, because a 12-course dinner takes about a 5 hour chunk of your day.
I decided in the middle of the dinner I wanted to serve an aperitivo and have everyone get out of their chairs, met some of the other guests, stretch their legs and get ready for the second round of courses. So I started researching amaros and tasting amaros and happened upon an old recipe that was supposedly a 400-year-old monk recipe. Who knows if it was, it definitely had some antiquated herbs that you can't find anymore. And I just decided, let's make a bottle of this and serve this. So I got together with my friend Allison Roth, who studied as an herbalist. So I went to her with this recipe and we tried to track down all the herbs and find modern translations for some of them. We made barely one bottle of amaro to serve at this dinner and it was less than an ounce per person we could give everyone.
It was actually so fantastic, it came out so nice, that the very first amaro we ever made is still one of my favorites. Everybody asked about it. And Jim, Jim German, the bartender, said 'If you make more of that I will pour it at the bar' and so I thought to myself, absolutely, I'll make more of that. So I started out doing really small batches, four or five bottles at a time, just doing a macerated version of it. Then I moved into distilling it to get a much more pure version of it. I built my own first still out of a pressure cooker and 10 feet of copper tubing. And the more times I did it the more times I refined the recipe and really liked my product and couldn't imagine that no one was making it.
I met Kirby [of Oola Distillery] one time out at Jim German's bar. Kirby said, "Hey, I'm opening a distillery" and I was like "That's cool." Jim poured some of my amaro, and Kirby asked if I wouldn't make some of this for his distillery. I said sure, why not? That was a couple years ago, and I started working on scaling it up and refining it to a production batch. That's the point we're at right now. There's 60 bottles just waiting to be bottled up at Oola, but the government doesn't know about amaro. As far as I can tell nobody is making anything in the United States that they're calling amaro. So the government had no idea what to about it and demanded that we send them two sample bottles before they approved it. So that's where we're at right now.
So where do you see amaro in the culinary world, where does it fit in?
It serves a great purpose. Italians love bitters and bitter herbs, and bitters help with digestion. That bitterness can also help you salivate. Bitters can be both an appertivo and a digestivo. They kind of both do the same thing, they excite your digestive juices and you salivate. And bartenders are crazy about 'em right now. Originally I could only imagine bartenders being interested in the amaro I made. To be honest, I don't feel like it's something the general public will go out and buy. But I love it. I would love it if you could go into any great Italian restaurant and at the end of your meal you were offered an amaro, just like you are in Italy and people learn to just kind of enjoy it on its own. Because the one I make is definitely crafted to be sipped on its own. It's not a test of strength like Fernet Branca. It's something elegant and refined.
Want to learn more about Mike Easton? Tomorrow he'll share the recipe for his proscuitto and duck egg carbonara, and he's teaming up with Artusi and Spinasse for an Amaro event on January 17th. Contact Spinasse for details.