If it’s the first weekend in May, you can be sure to find my husband and me in Walla Walla, Washington, enjoying the region’s Spring Release Weekend. Over the years we’ve talked it up enough among our Portland wine friends to entice them to come along, and so it was this year that six of us arrived in town on Thursday afternoon. We’ve learned this early arrival allows us to get a jump on the crowds of oenophiles arriving from Seattle, Portland and elsewhere who, like us, love the fabulous wines made in Eastern Washington. They stand up to anything California produces and often at far more reasonable prices. Plus, this charming town in the heart of wheat country and the Palouse and in sight of the Blue Mountains offers a warm and casual welcome to everyone.
For that first evening, we made reservations at Passatempo Taverna, a place that’s earned a great reputation among visitors and residents alike. Located in one of the early 20th-century buildings on Main Street, it opened a few years ago in a nicely remodeled space once occupied by long-time Italian diner The Pastime. Skylights and large windows bring in plenty of light, while brick and wood provide a cozy warmth. The evening was sunny and just warm enough that we opted to eat out on the patio.
Mike Martin, owner of Passatempo, also founded The Walls Vineyards. His partners in both ventures include accomplished mixologist Jim German, consulting chef Mike Easton and winemaker Ali Mayfield. A few of our group tried German’s cocktails, and we all enjoyed a luscious bottle of The Walls 2015 GSM “The Ramparts” and a fabulous meal. These folks have created something wonderful together!
We started by sharing a platter of salumi and fromaggio as we sipped our wine (the wine list has a broad selection of Walla Walla and Washington wines as well as a generous representation of Italian reds and whites) and then dove into assorted plates of fresh, house-made pastas. (There are a limited number of “secondi” entrées on the menu, but we were all about the pastas.) Passatempo doesn’t overwhelm with dozens of options, but each one tantalized. We ended up choosing at least one of each option after agreeing to share bites so we could try everything.
Harry ordered the pappardelle, a perfectly al dente saffron-flavored pasta served with a shredded lamb ragu rich and savory with tomato and spice. The cavatelli was a ramp pasta with locally sourced asparagus and morel mushrooms — a wonderful springtime dish, while the bucatini was served with a carbonara sauce of guanciale (pork cheek) and pecorino, a rich and hearty serving. I ordered the spaghetti served with Dungeness crab with a light cream sauce. I was hoping for chunks of crabmeat but instead found it more finely shredded, imparting a stronger, fishy taste than the sweet crab flavor I’d hoped for.
We also ordered a side of asparagus (a special crop at this time of year in this region) and a rapini salad for some greens, and then wrapped up dinner with gelato and cheesecake. (I love friends who aren’t shy about ordering dessert, even after a big meal!) Our server, Maria, was friendly, knowledgable and very patient even though she had to come back two or three times before we were ready to order because we were enjoying each others’ company so much. Although this was our first visit to Passatempo, we determined it would not be our last.
— Patty Vanikiotis, associate editor/copy editor
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