Letting go is hard when you are relinquishing something you love. But once Jason Stratton gave voice to the idea of changing the Spanish-themed Aragona, the less-than-a-year-old downtown restaurant, to the Italian-focused Vespolina, coming to terms with the decision was surprisingly easier than he thought it would be.
“The reception to Aragona was very mixed,” says the chef, who also oversees the kitchens at adjoining Italian restaurants Spinasse and Artusi on Capitol Hill. “People who loved it would be gaga, and that was exciting. But we had quite a few guests who had a hard time wrapping their heads around it. Six years of thought and menu writing and research went into creating Aragona, but people who know me know I’m an eternal optimist. I’m excited to give people something they really like and crave.”
Everybody, it seems, craves pasta, especially Stratton’s. It will be a focal point at Vespolina, even more so than at Spinasse and Artusi. “Artusi was going to be a cool cocktail lounge with great snacks,” recalls Stratton, “but everyone wanted Spinasse’s pasta, so it became more of a restaurant with a great bar and great food.”
The changeover downtown will occur swiftly. Aragona’s last night of service will be Saturday, Sept. 6, after a farewell run, during which Stratton will offer a $65 tasting menu of Spanish favorites, and wines above $100 will be steeply discounted. Vespolina opens Monday, Sept. 8. The striking interior, including Erich Ginder’s pendant lights and Kate Jessup’s mosaics, is to remain the same.
Stratton says that when he and chef de cuisine Carrie Mashaney actually sat down to work on Vespolina’s menu it took them “about half an hour” to come up with ideas. Expect more varieties of pasta than at Spinasse, and they are looking beyond Piedmont (Spinasse and Artusi’s spiritual home) for inspiration: trennette from Liguria, filled pastas from Emilia-Romagna, dumplings from Alto Adige, for example.
“I’ve been playing around with ideas from my Cafe Juanita days,” says Stratton, referring to five years spent working with chef Holly Smith at her paragon of Northern Italian cuisine in Kirkland. “I love making pasta. If I can use it to bring people in — and if then they try tripe and sweetbreads and pig trotters — I’m OK with making it for the rest of my life. It’s a satisfying process, for sure.”
Look for classic preparations like Tonnarelli alla Gricia, a Roman specialty made with black pepper, pecorino and cured pork jowl (guanciale), and maybe even “the world’s best Caesar” because, like so many people, he and Mashaney are both crazy about that salad.
A few Aragona-ish dishes might appear, too. The doughnut-like Spanish xuxo isn’t so very different from Italian bombolone. Spain’s Arroz Caldoso resembles Italy’s risotto. Grilled octopus is common to both cuisines.
Stratton envisions Vespolina as “a little branch of what we started at Spinasse, but one that will be its own space, its own experience.” That sentiment is reflected in the name. Vespolina is an Italian wine grape, a descendant of nebbiolo, the seminal Piedmont grape. “We are very nebbiolo-centric at Spinasse,” says Stratton. “I wanted that connection with what we are doing up the hill.” Plus, he adds, unlike the often mispronounced Spinasse (it’s “Spee-NAH-say”), people have no trouble saying it.