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WALLA WALLA'S PASSATEMPO

By Ronald Holden

We are fortunate, in Seattle, to live in the same city as Mike and Victoria Easton. And if you reside in Walla Walla, you are fortunate to share your town with Jim German.

For the better part of the past decade, German has lived in Waitsburg, a 20-minute drive from Walla Walla through the gently rolling wheat fields of the Palouse. He had moved out there from Seattle, where he'd worked as a bar manager at Campagne and Il Bistro. (At Il Bistro, he hired a talented barkeep named Murray Stenson.) At roughly the same time, Easton was running the original Il Corvo out of an ice cream shop, Procopio, in the nearby Pike St. Hill Climb, before moving into a tiny space across from the county courthouse.

Jim German

We hear, from time to time, that Walla Walla is "the new Paris." Well, no. But a couple of places in Walla Walla do reach levels of ambition and execution that are worthy of a much bigger town. For example, Brasserie Four is a take on the classic Parisian corner café, with dishes like chicken-liver pâté and oeufs dur mayonnaise, croque-monsieur, mussels, steak-frites, and, of course, a local wine list.

There's also a fine bakery, the Colville St. Patisserie, that offers croissants, cakes, and espresso drinks. The owners had worked at Walla Walla's first "real" restaurant, Whitehouse Crawford, a repurposed sawmill. Well, actually, the hotel came first: the Marcus Whitman. Whitman was a missionary who settled here in the 1830s and died in an uprising in 1847. The grand hotel, named in his honor, is now in the hands of local entrepreneur Kyle Mussman, who seems determined-with mixed results-to make the hotel's dining room a beacon of quality.

One midweek night last month I walked through a light rain from the hotel toward the old Pastime tavern. A bright neon sign proclaimed "Passatempo" and bathed the surroundings in a red glow. Not a soul was on the deserted sidewalk, and I wondered if the place had closed early. Inside, though, the place was packed, full of joyful noise.

German, behind the bar, was making drinks, calmly and methodically. He found me an open seat and handed over a list with dozens of cocktails, local wines, aperitivi and digestivi. I could have ordered a Tempesta (Fernet, rye, Carpano Antica), or a Vecchio Piazza, to honor the Piazza Navona in Rome (Amaro Ninino, Rye, Calvados), but I asked for a classic Negroni, and that's what I got.

The menu shows the Easton's influence (from nearly 300 miles away): very Italian, very heavily oriented toward pasta. One would expect nothing less from a man who collects the brass fittings that extrude pasta as a hobby. Easton is a spiritual partner in the restaurant. He and German talk on the phone several times a week.

Victoria and Mike Easton

Made by hand at Passatempo were two pasta options, pappardelle and agnolotti; the extruded pastas included spaghetti, cavatelli, rigatoni and bucatini. Offered as "secondi" (as Italian menus describe the more substantial dishes): pork meatballs, pan-fried chicken, and an 18-ounce steak.

I had been eating all day (as a guest on a press trip to celebrate a new partnership between Precept Wines and the Aldi supermarket chain), so I couldn't envision a full-blown Italian feast, and asked for the hand-made, wide-noodle pappardelle in a classic pork and beef Bolognese ragù, Which, not to put too fine a point on it, was $24, almost a ten-spot more than the Bolognese at Mondello Ristorante in Seattle's high-rent Magnolia neighborhood. Delicious, though the pasta was under-salted.

By the time I left, it seemed that every wine grower in eastern Washington was either eating or drinking at Passatempo. I said hello at half a dozen tables. It seemed that Mike Martin, the building's landlord, and owner of The Walls vineyard, had succeeded in creating (as he had no doubt hoped) a combination tasting room and community center. German by this time was having a bite of dinner himself.

And you'd think, perhaps, that being so far from the Bright Lights and Big City that all this nonsense about free refills (or not) of water glasses would be laid to rest or at least ignored. Alas, no. The jerks and know-nothings who spew on Yelp and barf on TripAdvisor have found their way to Passatempo, and are already complaining about the lack of ice in the water.

A word about salt. Pasta has to be cooked in well-salted water or else you're going to end up eating unflavored flour. Face it: how often have you seen a recipe that says "Cook pasta in six quarts of boiling water. Add ½ tsp salt." Allow me to point out that you would not be able to taste ½ tsp salt in six quarts of water, something barely at the edge of perception (about .5% salinity, roughly the same as Badoit. The ocean is 12 times that amount, three percent. Throw in a handful of salt, for goodness sake!

Troubled by that one false note at Passatempo, the under-salted pappardelle. I mentioned it to German as I left. (He has an exec chef running the kitchen, Aaron Mooney.) German rolled his eyes and said, "I know. I can't get the kitchen to do it right."

Photos courtesy of Ronald Holden

 

Passatempo Taverna
215 West Main Street
Walla Walla, WA 99362
509-876-8822
www.passatemowallawalla.com

November 2017


Ronald Holden's latest book, "Forking Seattle," is a critical guide to local food and drink.


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