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Bar Bacetto: Mike Easton’s Il Corvo Flies East

Story and photos by Ronald Holden

US Highway 12 runs 2,500 miles from Aberdeen, Washington, on the Pacific Coast, all the way to Detroit. It crosses the Cascades at White Pass, drops down to Yakima, joins Interstate 82 through the valley to the Tri-Cities, follows the Columbia River downstream to the Wallula Gap, then turns upstream into the Walla Walla Valley. Once clear of the airport, it heads due north through the slopes of the Blue Mountains. It bisects the old homestead community of Waitsburg, turns right at the foothills of the Palouse, and begins its meander eastward. We turn off at Waitsburg, population 1,200, a one-time frontier settlement and trading post. The shortest route, taking 1-90, is still four and a half hours from Seattle, 264 miles. 

Downtown Waitsburg

Waitsburg’s three downtown blocks are lined with handsome, classically designed two-story buildings in brick and stone. There’s a stately town hall, a bank, a library, a grocery store, a hardware store, a weekly newspaper, a boutique hotel, a couple of art galleries, a coffee shop, a pizza joint, a biker bar. The movie theater has closed its doors, but there’s something else here that makes for a compelling reason to visit the town: an Italian restaurant called Bar Bacetto, as authentic as you can get from a scholarly devotee of traditional cucina italiana, a stocky, good-natured gent in his late 40s who grew up in Albuquerque. His name is Mike Easton, which might sound familiar to students of Seattle’s pre-Covid food scene: il Corvo, il Gabbiano, and il Nido were all Mike Easton restaurants (the Crow, the Seagull, the Nest).

The fertile, rolling hills of the Palouse cuddle this little town like a duvet that changes its hue with the seasons: straw-colored, dark brown, bright green, fluffy yellow. Agricultural, to be sure. The copious harvest of hard winter wheat is loaded onto barges at Pasco that travel through locks down the Columbia to Longview or Kalama, then transferred to ocean-going freighters bound for China, where hard wheat is prized for making noodles. Some of it also ends up back in Waitsburg, where it’s turned into pasta by the man from Albuquerque.

In a world where it's fashionable to be--or pretend to be--an “Italian” cook, the country is full of Guido-wannabes. Mike Easton comes as close as a non-Italian can to being the real thing. He has dedicated himself to the craft of preparing food as an Italian chef or an Italian grandmother would: with almost endless patience and infinite love. To reach this plateau requires not just commitment but a mastery of techniques; masters at any activity call it muscle memory, the ability to replicate a task as elementary as the precise indentation of a thumbprint on a hundred pieces of tortellini.

Mike Easton, April 2023

In Seattle, Easton had built a mini-empire. At Il Corvo, Easton and a couple of helpers would prepare just three pastas, nothing but Easton's own whims, whatever he would find at the Market and whatever he could crank out by hand with his trusty, antique brass pasta-making apparatus. He would then post a picture on his blog,, or his Instagram feed, along with a tasting note: “The aroma of garlic, anchovies, and chili flake, slowly simmering in olive oil, envelops you like a warm blanket on a chilly October morning.”

There was barely room for maybe three dozen diners to sit at a time, and they often come based on what he wrote or tweeted. Three pasta choices, optional salumi plate, optional bread, optional wine, maybe some gelato for dessert, and, originally, cash only.

But look at the choices! From time to time, a superb taglialini alla Siciliana, which Easton described as "a culinary hug." Not some huge, Olive Garden or Buca di Beppo-sized monstrosity, but a perfect lunch size plate of pasta flavored with tomato paste, chili flakes and anchovies, topped with the peasants' substitute for grated cheese (because the aristocrats kept the cheese for themselves): toasted breadcrumbs. And might I add a modest hurrah for the depth of flavor contributed by anchovies? Beats bacon any day.

(On the other hand, like a True Believer faced with heresy, I wondered about the lack of eggplant in his caponata. Not al dente vegetables in a sweet-sour dressing; that's a giardiniera. But Easton should be forgiven, not scolded, for this one rare lapse.)

In 2016, Easton was a finalist in the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef, Pacific Northwest” category. Il Corvo was a hole-in-the-wall at the south end of downtown, serving what he called Pasta al Mano. In case you doubted his commitment to authenticity, the walls of Il Corvo were festooned with a collection of antique, hand-cranked, pasta-rolling instruments outfitted with classic brass dies, the better to create tiny ridges in the pasta so it holds the sauce better.

Easton also expanded to a second location a few blocks away that he called Il Gabbiano (the seagull), a short-lived foray into “Roman” street food: pizza sold not by the slice but by weight. Al taglio in the Roman style, baked in a rectangular pan – where you indicate roughly how much you want and they weigh the slice of pizza to determine the price. And, just before Covid hit and sent Seattle’s restaurant scene into a tailspin, Easton took over the old Alki Homestead restaurant on the West Seattle waterfront and turned it into a fine-dining venue he called Il Nido (the nest).

Then Easton was hit with personal tragedy: his wife, Victoria, passed away unexpectedly, and Easton began re-triangulating his life. His longtime friend Jim German wanted to sell his thrumming music venue, JimGermanBar [sic, no spaces], in Waitsburg, and take over the Pastime Tavern in downtown Walla Walla instead. Easton collaborated on the menu for the renamed Passatempo and fell in love with eastern Washington. (We reviewed Passatempo for in November 2017.). It seemed like a good time to leave Seattle behind and embark on a new venture. He sold the one restaurant he had left, Il Nido, to its longtime GM, Cameron Williams, and its chef, Katie Gallego.

Easton also crossed paths with Erin Carr, who would take over the cocktail program at his new spot, Bar Bacetto. When newlyweds Mike and Erin launched Bar Bacetto, it was open from 5:30 until 8 PM four nights a week and had counter seating for 12 guests. There would be a line around the block. The number of seats has since expanded to 16 and a new pizza place has since opened across the street to feed the overflow crowds. Erin, in charge of Bacetto’s dining room, brings a big-city vibe to the small town: traditional cocktails, retro boxes of wooden matches. Haven’t seen those for a while! A surprise dinner guest one recent evening was the actor Kyle MacLachlan, whose presence in Twin Peaks has already brought fame and fortune to Twede’s in North Bend. As one wag commented, seeing MacLachlan’s picture on Facebook, “That’s a damn fine bowl of noodles.”

“We never created Il Corvo to be for everybody,” Easton told Eater a decade ago, “and so there's a bunch of people who come in and they're just like, 'Oh, I have to go order my food and grab my own silverware? Forget it. This place sucks!' I'm fine with that. Good riddance. If you can't appreciate what it is and what it does, I'm totally fine with you not coming in.” But Bar Bacetto is more accommodating, more forgiving. Mike and Erin have added four more seats and ramped up the cocktail and wine lists. And you don’t have to bus your own table.

Same blackboard, new inspirations

These days, Easton and his family live upstairs, above the restaurant; he goes into the kitchen knowing precisely how many people he’s going to feed on a given night, and his menu (written on the same chalkboard he used at Il Corvo) is still limited to three appetizers, three pasta dishes, two desserts. But he doesn’t slack off just because he’s not doing a hundred covers. He’s at work mid-morning making pasta for dinnertime. His mise-en-place is perfect. He uses a digital scale to mete out the portions of pasta, and there’s a digital timer to let him know when exactly 90 seconds have elapsed. The cooktop he uses to finish the pasta is induction, so he’s dialed in to exactly the right temperature. The rigor, the precision, pays off.

On a recent week in Waitsburg, one of the appetizers was a sensational house-made mortadella, the salume originally from Bologna. Pork needs to be ground exceedingly fine, then larded with pork fat and studded with pistachios. Easton’s mortadella is dark red, almost like a blood sausage, filled with rich flavor, complemented by spicy red peppers (think Mama Lil’s). His radicchio salad comes dressed with olive oil, blanketed with Parmigiano, and topped with soft-boiled eggs. You’d think that decades of avoiding boxed Kraft dinners would discourage a chef from putting mac & cheese on the menu; you haven’t seen Easton’s approach: hand-extruded maccheroni pasta and guanciale (cured pork jowl), in a preparation known as alla Gricia. It’s an even older recipe than carbonara; that stuff in a blue box at the supermarket is a tasteless, bastardized, dumbed-down rip-off.

Mac & Cheese

Finally, just hang on, there, cowboy. Waitsburg’s a long way off, so don’t go jumping on your hoss and expect an open-armed welcome unless you have a reservation. Plenty of disappointed hombres online complaining there was a four-hour wait for walk-ins, so they turned around and rode right back to whence they came. Just pick up the phone, call 509-316-0399 and ask Erin what’s available. Better yet, send a text. She’ll get back to you, promise. And you won’t be disappointed.

May 2023

Bar Bacetto
119 Main Street
Waitsburg, WA 99361

Ronald Holden is a longtime contributor to He is the author of several books about food and wine in the Pacific Northwest, most recently Forking Seattle.

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