As someone who spends three-quarters of the year dining across America, I’m often surprised by the restaurant experiences I remember most vividly. The meals that I return to again and again in my mind don’t strictly map onto the “best” meals I’ve had — those white-tablecloth extravagances and the innovative dishes that end up reshaping the dining culture. A truly memorable meal can just as easily take place in a small neighborhood restaurant that has achieved honest, obvious value in its community.
The indications that a restaurant might be such a place are usually obvious. A line spills out the door but moves fast. Staffers extend a real sense of welcome to regulars and first-timers alike. The food is reasonably priced and of surprisingly high quality. Whether the star attraction is sublime pizza or a sustaining noodle bowl or a brilliantly engineered sandwich, the dish mesmerizes with its craftsmanship and expressiveness. Beyond the accomplished service and remarkable food, these restaurants possess an ineffable sense of community and place. They reflect their city or town or rural stretch of highway more profoundly than just about any other restaurant could. Really, coming upon modest places that accomplish all this is as rare as finding a genuinely stunning high-end indulgence.
One of the finest examples of this type of restaurant is Seattle's tiny Il Corvo. Owner Mike Easton crafts three daily-changing pastas as the centerpiece of his menu, which he serves only for lunch on Monday through Friday. No dinner; no weekends. Service begins at 11 a.m., and by noon a ragged, cheerful line reaches back to the door of the 36-seat space.
When I ate there on a mild October day last year, the veneer of pesto on a slinky twirl of tagliarini radiated mint, and the sauce's herbal harmonics (there was also basil and parsley) resounded clear and bright on the palate. Swirly fusilli came tossed with crisp wisps of house-made pancetta, slivers of red cabbage and soft braised fennel. More recently, Easton paired the complex torchietti, a pasta made with curvy, ridged twists of dough, with simple, reassuring walnut and spring onion cream sauce. The menu's only near-constant dish is pappardelle alla Bolognese. The coil of wide noodles, slicked with meaty gravy and finished with a generous grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano, is served year-round, even on warm August days. Easton knows that some comforts transcend the seasons.
Here's the kicker: Easton charges a mere $9 for these pastas. In a way the price is sensible: The Italian staple may be labor-intensive but the ingredients are inexpensive. Handmade pasta consists of just flour and eggs or flour and water, after all. But I can't think of another instance in my 15-year career as a critic where I've encountered such astounding pasta for under $10. The remaining roster of dishes listed on the restaurant's chalkboard usually includes a handful of rotating, affordable antipasti: perhaps prosciutto scattered with diced pickled celery, or a bowl of mixed olives, or a salad built around kale or chickpeas. But for both flavor and price, the pastas are the undeniable scene-stealers.
Easton's mastery and affordability have propelled Il Corvo to local cult status. He deserves it. This is the kind of animated, community-minded restaurant I wish for every neighborhood in America. That said, I've visited a great deal of neighborhoods in the past few years, and I've never come across any place quite like it.
Il Corvo began in the same way as a number of new independent projects by chefs: as a permanent pop-up. In 2011 Easton was working as executive chef at Seattle's Lecosho, a restaurant where entrees like New York strip with braised kale, fingerling potatoes, and chanterelle-leek ragu goes for $33. Easton longed to spend more time with his young family, and after a trip to Italy he'd begun geeking out on pasta-making. He obsessed over the recipe proportions and started acquiring the antique rollers, spindles and extruders used to shape the dough into endless forms.
His friend Brian Garrity owned Procopio Gelateria in Pike Place Market; Easton had actually pulled espresso and scooped frozen treats there in 1999 when he first moved to Seattle. After leaving Lecosho, Easton approached Garrity about renting space in the gelateria for his pasta experiment.
From the start, Easton's plan was to serve only lunch. "I was crafting more of a lifestyle than a restaurant," he said by phone. "I don't mind getting up early. And crafting pasta is such a pursuit — I love the artistry and figuring out which forms work symbiotically with the sauce."
Juggling three butane burners, an electric pasta boiler, and the occasional gelato order, Easton ran his pop-up on the thinnest of shoestrings. But his masterful pastas became a sensation with local critics and diners, enabling Il Corvo to open in their current space on a steep hill in the Pioneer Square area in January 2013.
These days Easton and his crew crank out 250 to 300 portions of pasta every shift. And they're slowly building what might be the country's most humble restaurant empire. Il Corvo's success enabled Easton and longtime employee Johannes Heitzeberg to open a second restaurant, Pizzeria Gabbiano, in late 2014. The concept specializes in thin, Roman-style focaccia topped with combinations like capicola, caramelized onions, and fennel fronds. Like Il Corvo, Gabbiano is also open solely for weekday lunch, and a meal there is efficient and uplifting: We put it on Eater's inaugural Best New Restaurants list last year.
Easton is also gearing up to retail his pastas, since customers at Il Corvo have been asking about buying noodles for years. This summer he plans to open a pasta shop with 10 or 12 daily options and sauces to match. An Italian pasta drying cabinet is currently en route to Seattle.
Happily, no empire-building distractions show through at Il Corvo. Easton is still there around 6 a.m. every morning, gauging the weather to determine if the day's customers might prefer warming pasta e fagioli or uplifting tagliatelle with pea shoot and almond pesto. And then he gets to work.
Il Corvo is notable first and foremost because the pastas are soul-stirring and eloquently fashioned. But Easton's cooking also keeps returning to me because pasta culture around the country has stretched to polar extremes. In its infinite variations, the dish is rendered as either a quick hunger stopgap prepared without much finesse, or serves as a blank slate for upscale showmanship involving uni and caviar and shaved truffles. Il Corvo returns pasta to its place of essential goodness. The restaurant turns dough into happy-making strands and whimsical shapes. Beautifully pitched sauces balance acid, freshness, and heft.
A lovingly made pasta
lunch is both so satisfying and so uncommon there's a sense of lightheartedness in the room.
Maintaining pasta's core simplicity while treating every aspect of the dish with respect did more than bring good Italian food to the neighborhood: it created community. A lovingly made pasta lunch is both so obviously satisfying and so uncommon that there's a sense of lightheartedness in the room. I've noticed no one seems overly fidgety or cranky in the line. For pasta this winning at $9 a pop, a little wait feels acceptable. Portions seem spot-on, not heaping but certainly not skimpy. (And hell, if you have a big appetite, get two pastas. The cost would still be less than the pasta dishes in many tonier restaurants.)
The service further fosters this sense of community, both in its warmth and efficiency. A sign near the entrance details the rules of etiquette: "Order at the counter. Select a seat AFTER YOU'VE PLACED YOUR ORDER. Bus your own table. Enjoy your lunch." The brusque wording may have offended some customers early on, but the directives did their job: the place has a rhythm that works. Once you've paid and your lunch is ready, an available seat is never long in coming. Most of the tables are four-tops, though I've noticed groups with empty chairs often invite solo strangers to join them. It's a thoroughly democratic shindig, with people of all backgrounds and occupations crammed into the rectangular room.
Il Corvo reflects one of the most hopeful facets of our current restaurant culture, where skill, quality and price all meet to serve a city. When friends visiting Seattle ask for restaurant recommendations, I invariably send them the link to Easton's blog, where he dutifully details each day's pastas. That list sells them, and when they go they can't believe the energy, the prices, the deliciousness. Locals and travelers alike tell me they return for lunch over and over. In a city with so many compelling restaurants, I'm tempted to encourage variety. But honestly, when I'm in Seattle, I too join the line for Easton's pastas over and over again.
217 James Street, Seattle, (206) 538-0999, ilcorvopasta.wordpress.com.