Venice With A Side of NW Soul
San Francisco, Chicago, New York, LA; these are the "foie gras" cities of America's culinary identity -- they're fancy, elite, luxurious, creative, and force fed with praise.
Finally, another city was added to the list.
I was fortunate to live in Washington DC when it joined the upper echelon of the American fine dining. The Nation's Capital, home of transplants and nutty political cycles, officially arrived on the world food scene in 2016 with the publication of its own edition of the Michelin Guide Book. I believe Aaron Silverman's Pineapple & Pearls and Rose's Luxury were big reasons why.
Foie gras is a common fine-dining menu option made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened through forced feeding.
There is a size, scope, and culture to DC that made Michelin's focus inevitable. But what other metro hubs may be deserving of national recognition as a serious food destination?
How about Seattle?
The land of Amazonia, Grunge, and complex seasonal variability may be too pocketed in our geographical corner of the country, too small, too techy, and not international enough to be included. Seattle is a laid back adventure's oasis, not a preeminent culture center. But what if? Cool things are happening here in food, from old-faithful Canlis, to Junebaby, Spinassi, and Altura, just to name too few.
How can Seattle enhance its food identity on the world stage?
One solution is the continued infusion of talent from abroad. Rome? Paris? Tokyo? I believe the arrival of a chef with a clear understanding of their local traditions and resources -- a personality with curiosity to fuse old world and new -- would lead to an influx of national. Madrid? Copenhagen? Lima?
Or how about ... Venice, Italy?
Sheltered away from the cruise ship crowd and crooning gondoliers is an exceptionally delicious osteria, a minimalist kitchen run by steely and apathetic Venetian, a mighty man on a mission to protect his pocket of the world from an insurgency of foreigners and tourist traps.
Giovanni is the owner, server, dishwasher, host, chef, and sole proprietor of I Rusteghi Osteria Enoteca. He provides locals with an authentic evening of conversation, wine, and Cicchetti -- small plated Venetian dishes. In this secret courtyard, food and Venetian conversation comes first and tourists don't exist.
While visiting Venice last September, S and I found our way to Giovanni's courtyard.
Giovanni arrived 15 minutes late. The Italian neither acknowledged nor bothered us as he set chairs and balanced his menus against the jeroboam of red wine at his courtyard entrance. He moved slow. A line of laundry dangled above us. It began to rain. This particular day was like the one before it and the one soon ahead. We waited and watched. We succumbed to his pace. There was no rush. We had plenty of reason to rush off for a meal elsewhere.
But we couldn't leave. On the kitchen window was a random sticker with the familiar logo of Caffe Vita, a mainstay local coffee roastery owned by Seattle native Mike McConnell. It's a small world, but this was too bizarre. I had to know the story of this sticker.
During out meal, we watched tourists enter the courtyard and leave. Giovanni stuck to his rhythm and passed each curious party with a blank expression, a total and meticulous failure to acknowledge. The potential customers pivoted and left. A simple smile may have welcomed them. A menu in English would cinched the guarantee. Customer after customer chose to spend their euros elsewhere.
It's difficult to describe a good meal. Flashy flowy adjectives conceal the reality and leave too much focus on the critics themselves. I'll put it this way: people visit Venice to cross it off a bucket list. I have fair reason to return for the food. The collection of local small seafood dishes were delicious. I'm not confidant I can find the equivalent in America.
Giovanni delivered the next course and sat with us. We chatted in English. He explained that he was just one man. One man in one small minimalist kitchen. No bells and whistles. It doesn't take much foot traffic to keep busy. If a patron wants to sit down, they'll sit down. Sit or go. Don't make me cook for you if you don't really want me to.
Of course I asked about the Caffe Vita sticker.
Mike McConnell figured it out first. A man like Giovanni would bring great value to Seattle. As of last September, the plan was for the Venetian solo artist to fly to Seattle in November and take the first big step toward joining forces in a new Seattle restaurant venture.
I keep my hungry eyes open. One man. A small kitchen. A bottle of wine and the fusion of Northwest ingredients and Venetian tradition. Maybe Seattle doesn't need the Michelin Guide, the starched white napkins of fine-dining foie gras couture. Maybe the point is that Seattle food isn't extravagant, nor out of reach. This little pocket of the world isn't bloated by exclusivity and hype, it's accessible to all. You just have to choose to take a seat.
French speaking lessons not necessary. No maître d` required.
Mike McConnell is also the owner of Via Tribunali on Capitol Hill. Inspired by Naples, it's a fantastic happy hour and pizza spot.