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All Roads Lead to Osteria La Spiga

by Geoffrey Smith January 22, 2007

La Spiga

The entrance and lounge at the new Osteria La Spiga.

The Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy was named after the via Emilia, a long, straight road that connected the region to ancient Rome. Osteria La Spiga on Capitol Hill is Seattle’s connection to the cuisine of the very same region. And what a cuisine it is.

For the last few years a friend and I have traveled down Broadway many times in an effort to grab a spare seat at La Spiga’s two seat bar. When successful, we are guaranteed a bottle of Sangiovese, an antipasti special that we never even bother to ask about (because it’s always good), and the highlight: lots of lively banter with the man in charge, Pietro Borghesi. Together with his wife Sabrina Tinsley and his right-hand man Chris King, Pietro and Co. really make you feel at home and the food is outstanding. But here’s the problem: we are only ever successful in our junket one out of three attempts. More often than not we are turned away at the door because there are simply no tables available. The place is just that good—and quite small—and for whatever reason we’re just not the type to make reservations. So, we wave to Pietro and tell him we’ll be back again for another try, and eventually we get in a few weeks later. Well, that’s all changed in the past month as the road to La Spiga has taken a slight detour. About two blocks actually, to a fantastic new location on 12th and Pike.

The new space is a stunning departure. It begins with a cozy little bar up front that soon opens up into an expansive dining room with 30 foot ceilings. The amount of open space could easily make the room feel cold but they have done an nice job with both lighting and lots of exposed wood that really give it an intimate feel. This room then opens up into an elevated outdoor patio that will surely be the most popular outdoor dining spot this summer.

Over the last few weeks I spent some time hanging out at the restaurant, drinking wine with Pietro and finding out more about the reinvention of Osteria La Spiga. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Urban Dish: So, why the move?

Pietro Borghesi: The location was getting small and we were turning away too many people. I’m not one to make a reservation and when I’m in the mood for eating I like to be able to just go anywhere. So for me, it wasn’t good to see all the regular customers who share similar habits get turned away at the door. So really the move was for our customers. And that’s also why we wanted to stay on Capitol Hill, to treat our regular customers to something new.

We also wanted to get away from the “strip mall” that we were in because it was not a big draw, and in the end our lease wasn’t very favorable either. Now, did we want to get this big? Not really at first, but when we finally found this space and saw how beautiful it was we quickly revised our plans. And now, yes, we are very happy with the size.

La Spiga

The dining room at La Spiga.

UD: You once explained to me that a traditional osteria was sort of a humble tavern with a real familial atmosphere, and that was certainly one of the big attractions of your old restaurant. Are you worried that you will lose that sense of intimacy in this new, rather large space?

PB: That was actually our biggest concern. So really, our first goal was to make it as cozy and as comfortable as possible. Given the much larger space I think for the most part we were able to do just that. And it’s not really as much about the size as it is about the fact that it’s a little bit harder now to recognize the people and be able to make eye contact with the customers we were so used to seeing up close before. So Chris and I are doing as much as we can to try maintain the level of contact we were able to in our old space. But here, with more people and a bigger menu we are always getting pulled away, so it’s something we want to be aware of. It’s still a family owned place you know, it’s still just me and my wife and all our “kids” and it shouldn’t be too hard to get that feeling going in this space too. We just need to grow into it a bit.

UD: Your brother was responsible for design of the space, what was it like working with him?

PB: It was great, he did our old space too, but this was something completely different. Together we really wanted to work with the space and try and maintain the feel of it. This is an historical building that is almost 100 years old and we wanted to preserve the character but also bring in some of that Italian feel. Nothing like our old space, but if you were in an Italian osteria you would still see stone and wood and iron like we have here, the raw materials, and this is kind of our interpretation of it. And we really tried to use people from around the neighborhood. My brother worked with a local architect, Jim Graham, and the guy next door did the iron work and the leather work on the booths, the lighting is local as well—all people in town. And then we also have a container waiting in customs right now with more furniture straight from Emilia-Romagna which should round out the Italian feel a bit.

UD: In terms of the food, is Emilia-Romanga still the regional focus?

PB: Yes, we’ve expanded the number of items but more or less it’s the same kind of food as before. I think there’s so much Italian food around that it’s nice to able to focus on just one specific cuisine.

UD: When I mention La Spiga to people, a lot of the time they say something along the lines of “Oh yeah, my Italian friends all love to eat there.” What exactly are you doing to create this kind of appeal?

PB: I think part of the reason is that we have never compromised and we have never played the “international” card. There are a number things you can do with Italian food that will make your food more familiar to the American palate and we have never followed that—but mostly because we’re just not familiar with that kind of cooking. We came straight from Emilia-Romanga and pretty much did what we knew. And lucky for us, Seattle is a great city that is becoming more worldly and people are traveling more and people are really able to recognize something that is true to its tradition, and that’s what were trying to do.

Everybody has the right to drink a good glass of wine.

— Pietro Borghesi

UD: What new menu items are you excited about?

PB: The meats section is great. In the past we were doing meats as a special and now we have the space to do a lot more on a regular basis. I like it all but right now the duck breast is fantastic. And our antipasti menu is great too and it will also become our "small plate" bar menu. This will be served nightly until 1:30 or so. It’s great because you can get some wine or a drink and order a few plates to share—really fun. I love to eat this way.

UD: One really interesting feature of your new menu is that you are offering a Condimenti section where diners can order sides of truffle oil, aged balsamic vinegar, special sea salts, etc. What inspired this?

PB: I really feel that how you dress your food quite often makes the difference. So we thought it would be great to offer truffle salts and aged oils and let people dress their own plates. For example, I always eat a soup that is typical from Romagna called passatelli. It’s a chicken and beef stock with a small dumpling, and after it’s cooked and plated I add three drops of truffle oil right on top. When the truffle oil hits the hot soup, the perfume—oh man—it’s something unbelievable! So we thought it would be great for people to experience that.

UD: Hanging out at your tiny bar in the past I’ve always been amazed by the inexpensive, quality Italian wines you seem to pull out of some magical, hidden cellar. What’s your secret?

PB: I drink. (Laughs) A lot people forget that wine is really supposed to be drunk with food. So some of these smaller, less expensive wines might be slightly rough at first but once you start eating they really start to develop and people are surprised. So you have to be a little more adventurous and try new things. I think the other advantage I have is that Italian wines have become so much better over time. And everybody has the right to drink a good glass of wine.

La Spiga

The Emilia-Romagna classic: Tagliatelle Bolognese.

UD: One of the reasons we started Urban Dish is so that we could find out what cooks and restaurant owners like to eat and where they like to go. So let’s say you have a day off, where are you headed for dinner?

PB: Ah, the usual suspects I guess: Matt’s in the Market, Monsoon, Harvest Vine, Le Pichet. I’ve been to this Tamarind Tree place recently and I really liked that. I honestly don’t eat a lot of Italian outside of my own kitchen but I really like Sorrentino on Queen Anne (Fabio is a friend), and still I do think Il Terrazzo is a great place, a solid, old-school Italian restaurant.

UD: Looking ahead, what can we expect from Osteria La Spiga?

PB: We will be hosting wine dinners upstairs on our banquet level, live jazz four nights a week, and late night dining until 1:30, so a new focus on nightlife. And then we will be offering a seasonal menu so when spring comes around expect lighter fare, more seafood—maybe whole fish—and then the opening of our patio out back. So yeah, lots of new stuff coming!

UD: Thanks Pietro, looking forward to some mussels this summer on that swanky patio of yours.

PB: Ciao, see you there!

Geoffrey Smith is a graphic designer living in Seattle who has a certain fondness for salted meats.