There’s a wait in Waitsburg: It’s hard to get a place in Bar Bacetto, a fresh-cookin’ Italian bar in way-out wheat country
In the quiet intention of morning, Mike Easton runs his floured hands over sheets of wide pasta.
It makes a rhythmic shhhhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhh shushing sound, like someone trying to calm a small child.
“I don’t think we could have opened this place in Seattle,” Easton said.
Sea-town to wheat-town
Easton and Erin, his wife and business partner, moved from Sea-town to wheat-town – or, in other words from Seattle, population of about 734,000, to Waitsburg, population of about 1,200. The New York Times chose the restaurant as one of its top 50 places to eat in “The Restaurant List.” Now, reservations are booked daily but are 30 days out. Just after midnight the slots are released onto a digital reservation tool, OpenTable, but they fill up fast.
The Eastons are not the first Seattle restaurateurs to come to Waitsburg in search of autonomy, farm-fresh ingredients and a slower pace of life.
This particular morning, Mike throttles up a 1940s refurbished pasta sheeter. The nearly foot-wide sheets of uncut noodles ribbon and spool around his hands like something out of Willy Wonka.
“I don’t think we could have found the right space,” Mike said, of opening the restaurant in his former home of Seattle. “I don’t think we could have afforded the right space and I don’t think we could have met the expectations of a large city, on what they want for a restaurant.”
Bar Bacetto is located inside a brick and wood building constructed in 1884 in downtown Waitsburg. It has 15 and a half-foot ceilings and old wooden floors. It is open Wednesday through Saturday and has attracted many city foodies to the little town.
Erin said: “When Mike first brought me out here there was already a little enclave of friends who were super welcoming and really lovely, talented, interesting, creative people. So, it wasn’t a stretch when the opportunity came up to take over these buildings.”
Mike, the owner and chef here, was also a big pasta deal back in Seattle. He was owner and chef of Il Corvo, an Italian eatery that was first in Pike Place Market then in Pioneer Square. People would line up daily outside the restaurant for his pasta.
“You know, we moved out here and real estate is affordable,” Mike said. “We can be closed three days out of the week and do just two short turns for service. I don’t think that’s a thing that we can get away with in Seattle.”
His new place is eclectic. Antiques are prominent. The menu is scrawled in chalk on a large board on the wall.
Mike transforms sheets of pasta into bouncy ribbons with a brass pasta cutter. Here, like in Seattle, pasta is the rockstar on the plate. It’s Mike’s quest.
“I love how whimsical pasta can be,” Mike said. “I love that it can be architecture for you to appreciate through eating. I love the symbiosis that a perfect pasta shape with a perfectly paired sauce has. The fact that the two go together. Random pastas don’t just go with random things – they are designed to work together.”
At night, the bar lights up. There are 24 seats in the place and 42 patrons are served each night – all here for the pasta.
Why cook Italian?
Mike said he went to Italy several times to learn his craft.
“When I went to Italy, I didn’t learn how to cook Italian food. I learned why to cook Italian food,” he said.
He said the key was often the seasonality of dishes – and thrift. Great food doesn’t have to be expensive. He said one particular simple dish by a chef in Tuscany was a revelation:
“It was nothing more than a bundle of asparagus boiled in some water,” Mike explained. “He boiled them until they were absolutely, what we in America would consider overdone.”
The chef tossed it with oil, garlic and pasta with a pat of butter.
“It was one of the most flavorful expressions of that vegetable I’ve ever had in my life,” Mike said.
Rural air and dreams
In Seattle, the pandemic, closing his restaurant and a death in the family prompted the move to Waitsburg.
Now, Mike said his daughter went from private school in Seattle to public and she’s taken well to the rural air.
“We feel quite a bit more free out here,” Mike said.
Other Seattle restaurateurs have opened their dreams in Waitsburg before. After the great Recession of 2008, some eateries closed. The Jimgermanbar and the Whoopemup Hollow Cafe, a southern-comfort-food-style place, once packed people in. Ross Stevenson, along with his husband Leroy Cunningham, were some of the owners of Whoopemup. They still live in Waitsburg.
“What we gained is respect,” Cunningham said.
As diverse people and westside outsiders, Cunningham said, it took years to win over many in the small town.
“We weren’t the stereotypical gay people,” he said. “I wasn’t the stereotypical black man. We weren't what they thought we were in their heads. We changed it and that makes me proud. That makes him proud. No, we did something. We let you know who we really are. Now we have respect. We didn’t change, they did.”
Lane Gwinn said a new flock of businesses are making a go, filling up downtown again. Gwinn is the publisher of The Waitsburg Times, a weekly newspaper.
“Wednesday through Sunday we have actual choices of things we want to do in the evening,” Gwinn said. “And we can walk up and down the street and sometimes it’s not easy to find a parking space, so it’s all good.”
Many people sought out and moved to smaller towns during the pandemic. Once closed storefronts are now occupied by: Ten Ton Coffee and Art, Royal Block boutique hotel and wine bar and the American 35 for woodfired pizza.
“The amount of art and artists out here was probably the first thing that blew me away,” Erin said. “It’s incredible the amount of talent that’s out there and all the people who are making things and writing things and painting things, or collecting art. There is so much of it here. That was surprising for me. What wasn’t surprising was how warm everyone is.”
Back at Bar Bacetto – bacetto means little kiss on the cheek in Italian – the Eastons said they hope they’ve created something in Waitsburg that will stick.
Moments after cooks dish the pasta to plates, they finish it with frost-fine parmigiano-reggiano and whisk the dish to patrons.
The patrons’ conversation ceased as several plates of densely-sauced pasta met their eyes: winter luxury pumpkin gnocchi with sage butter and amaretto cookies and mafalda with prosciutto bolonais and spaghetti al tartufo.
“All right guys,” Mike said. “Here we go.”