Osteria La Spiga

Osteria La Spiga lives comfortably at the intersection of Old World and New–the menu, with accents of the authentic culinary traditions of Emilia-Romagna, is presented in a setting that speaks a contemporary Northwest dialect of polished wood, exposed brick, and structural steel. The expansive dining room resolves into more intimate settings defined by beams, glass, textures, booths and “cubicles.” In rustic counterpoint, a weathered Italian sideboard anchors the service area, reminding you that the preparation of your meal actually began many years ago in the old kitchens of Emilia-Romagna.

And the food is as appealing as the setting. Last Sunday, a friend and I had a lovely dinner there. Soon after you are seated, a basket of homemade flat bread arrives: a dense chewy bread, Piadina (the menu tells me) is vegan. You can eat it plain (as we did) or dress it with olive oil (you have a choice of two!), balsamic vinegar, or truffle oil (ordered a la carte).

For the antipasto, we had prosciutto-wrapped figs filled with mascarpone and drizzled with saba (a grape must syrup), served with arugula from the chef’s garden. The plate was dotted with a nice reduction of balsamic vinegar, and the figs were sweet-savory, with a pleasing mix of textures. I love arugula; this version was young enough for only a hint of pepper beneath its smoke, and the dressing was light enough to let the flavors through.

(Last time I ate here, we had the Fritto Misto di Pesce for the starter–fried calamari, shrimp, and sardines; the current menu offers the dish with bay scallops instead of sardines, accompanied by a salsa verde dipping sauce. I would have ordered it again, if we hadn’t managed to snare the very last serving of the beautiful figs.)

Primi

We came hungry!–we ordered two primi. I went with the Tagliatelle Verdi al Cinghiale: green tagliatelle with a wild boar and white wine ragu. It wasn’t an easy choice. On my last visit, a friend had the Tagliatelle al Burro di Tartufo (tagliatelle noodles with white Alba Truffle butter), and I sneaked a taste–a lovely, rich sauce. But I’m glad I tried the boar ragu; the ground meat was delicate but added a distinctive earthy note to the wine sauce. You want to pay attention to this pasta! It is hand-made daily on-site. (You can watch; the pasta room, behind the sideboard, has glass walls.)  If you are like me, you usually cook with dried commercial pasta, which has a uniform texture and thickness and bland taste. Say hello to pasta with character!–This pasta has a rustic shape and texture that holds the sauce in a very different and satisfying way.

For the other “first,” my friend had the Gnocchi al Pomodoro: potato dumplings tossed in the house tomato sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano. I had this dish last time and loved it. The gnocchi are very light, and the tomato sauce is absolutely to die for–delicate, aromatic, flavorful.

Secondi

We shared a single order of the porchetta (slow roasted pork shoulder with rosemary, sage and fennel seed served with fennel alla Parmigiana). The plating under-sells this wonderful dish; even a sprig of parsley would have brightened the presentation. But don’t be deceived; you are about to taste a dish that is anything but bland. The first clue was that it was served with a spoon. After having roasted low and slow over-night, the meat fell apart into moist chunks at the first touch. I would have told you that fennel wasn’t among my favorites, but the fennel seed and mild braised fennel worked like a wonder with the flavor of the pork. (I couldn’t get enough! Unfortunately, it is bad manners to stab your table-mate’s hand, so I had to make do with my half.) We rounded out our meal with a serving of Polenta Fritta:  fried polenta wedges with a thin crisp skin over a light creamy interior. Classic!

As it happens, my stepson Ezra works at La Spiga, and in his typical top form, he brought us each a taste of vin santo to end our meal. He explains: “the drink I brought you was a vin santo from Tuscany (as all vin santos are) made from the
left-overs of grapes used to produce chianti.  It’s called ‘ Occhio di Pernice,’ which means ‘eye of the partridge.'”

Here’s Darliene, who was maitre ‘d this evening (vamping for the camera–you go, Darliene!) And here’s my stepson Ezra, the floor manager, who was bartending on Sunday. (I couldn’t get a money shot of him–he wouldn’t stay still!) For some reason (because I was totally focused on my plate?) I didn’t take a picture of our server Miranda. She did a very good job for us–unobtrusive but somehow there when we look around with a question.

I’ve had dinner at La Spiga several times now, with various of my opinionated and outspoken foodie friends (you know who you are). The consensus is: great food and very good service. Does it help that Ezra is my stepson? Probably!–but get acquainted with him and Darliene and the rest of the staff–they’ll take good care of you too. That’s the fun of having a place that draws you back again and again, where they welcome you every time.

La Spiga, owned by Sabrina Tinsley and Pietro Borghesi, is on Capitol Hill in Seattle, on 12th Ave. between Pike and Union.  http://www.laspiga,com.

Stuffed tomatoes for arugula lovers

I love big fat juicy heirloom tomatoes, and I love arugula!–So I decided to make a nice lunch combining the two. (The first time I ate a tomato with arugula was on the island of Crete when I was there  . . . how long ago? a decade?–at a professional conference. Do I need to add that attendance at the conference was huge but attendance at the sessions was skimpy?–A couple of earnest souls and the rest indoors to pamper their sunburns.)

Anyway, here’s where we are going: an arugula pesto for the plate, a beautiful tomato (don’t even reach for the salmon-colored golf ball), and a nice filling with chopped arugula, walnuts, bell peppers, red onion, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, and a few other things. And let’s dress up the plate with tendrils of lemon zest, a scattering of arugula flowers, and (why not, since they are in bloom in pots out on my deck?) a few nasturtium flower petals.

But first things first. Here’s your list of ingredients:

  • 2 large or 4 small heirloom tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 C arugula leaves (divided)
  • A few arugula flowers, if you have them
  • 2 small cloves garlic, minced (divided)
  • 1/4 C plus 1 T mild olive oil
  • A few nasturtium flower petals, if you have them
  • Half of a red bell pepper, diced (or a mix of colors)
  • 1/4 of a small red onion, diced (about 2 T)
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon (zest divided)
  • 1/2 C chopped walnuts (divided)
  • 1/4 C bread crumbs
  • 1/4 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (divided)
  • 1/8 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

Note that the filling is not cooked! Dice or mince the vegetables small enough for you to stay happy when you bite into the raw pieces.

Make the pesto

(Note: If you don’t have breadcrumbs on hand and are going to make them,  do it before you make the pesto–it makes for an easier cleanup between steps. After I have people over for dinner, I always end up with a quarter of a baguette or some such lying around, so I frequently make breadcrumbs in my food processor and almost always have a bag of them in the freezer. Which I did today, so all I had to do was measure!)

Rinse and dry the arugula leaves.(Option: I used arugula from my garden, so I also pinched off a few of the flowers and put them in a shallow bowl of water to use later for garnish. They are perfectly edible and taste just like the leaves. Also, if you have a nasturtium or other edible flower in your garden, add a few of its petals to the bowl (not the whole flower!–just the petals).

Put one cup of the arugula in a small food processor. (Be sure to save the other 1/2 cup for the filling!) Add half the minced garlic, a pinch of salt, and a grind or two of pepper. Pulse a few times to get a coarse paste.

Then, drizzle in up to 1/4 cup of olive oil, to get a mixture as smooth as you like (I like mine kind of coarse). (Check the lid of your food processor; does it have one or two small holes in it? If so, with the motor running, you can slowly pour the olive oil onto the lid and let it drip down into the bowl. Or, if you are using a blender, stop and add the oil in one-tablespoon increments and run the motor in between.)

Set the pesto aside for use later.

Make the filling

Zest the lemon. (Use a zester/striper if you have one; otherwise, use a regular vegetable peeler and cut the wide strips into skinny ones.) Save about half the strips for garnish and mince the rest. Then cut the naked lemon in half and juice it.

Prepare the peppers by using a sharp knife to skim off the inside membrane (the whitish layer). This gives you a deeply colored, glossy surface that is very pretty.

Dice the pepper (or peppers, if you are using a mix of colors; I used red and orange). Dice the onion. Save about a tablespoon of the diced peppers for garnish. Chop the walnut pieces coarsely and divide into two portions.

Chop up the remaining half-cup of arugula leaves.

Grate the cheese. (Use real parm-reg! The stuff from the green can doesn’t taste good.) Since it costs an arm and a leg, I tend to grate it coarsely so that I can savor its taste separately!

Now make sure that you have put aside the items that we need later for garnish: half of the walnuts and half of the grated cheese for a topping on the tomatoes; and the pesto, a little bit of the diced pepper, half of the lemon zest (the strips), and the flowers for the plate.

In a small bowl, combine all the remaining ingredients for the filling: the breadcrumbs, the remaining half of the minced garlic, the remaining diced pepper and onion, the chopped arugula leaves, the remaining half of the chopped walnuts, the remaining one tablespoon of olive oil, the lemon juice and minced lemon zest, the red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt and grind of pepper (or to taste).

Fill the tomatoes

This amount of filling works for two large or four small heirloom tomatoes. Cut off the top one-fourth (that’s the stem end) of each tomato. Core the tomatoes, being careful not to let the knife cut through the skin. (Especially if you are using very meaty tomatoes, save the top and core!–You can just chop them up and use in a tuna salad or something. These tomatoes taste too good to waste any of the flesh!)

Gently press the filling into the cored tomatoes, ending with a slightly rounded top. If the filling felt dry at all, drizzle each with a small amount of olive oil (about a teaspoon). Then sprinkle the surface with the remaining walnut pieces and cheese.

Turn on the broiler and broil the tomatoes just until the cheese melts and gets a little color. Watch them!–I let mine go a bit too long, and the walnut pieces got darker than I wanted. (They still tasted good though.)

Plate the stuffed tomatoes

It’s fun to play with your food! Make a puddle of the arugula pesto on the plate. (I’m not happy with my pesto; it has separated a bit. I’ll make it a few more times in the next couple of weeks to see if I can figure out what I did wrong.) Place the tomato next to it. Dry the flowers and petals, if you are using them. Sprinkle the plate with the garnishes: bits of pepper, lemon zest, and flower petals. If you like, you can add a slice of crusty bread, and maybe a light dessert like a sherbet. (This is actually a pretty hearty lunch; you won’t need much else.) Even with my beginner’s problems, this was a tasty dish. Serve it and EAT!