Not every married 30-something likes to take trips with their mother, but I do. She’s an easygoing, seasoned traveler with a good sense of humor and a willingness to go with the flow, which means she’s the perfect on-the-road companion. But she tends to take things a little slower than I do, which means that our trips together usually include a free hour or two in the afternoon while she takes a nap or watches an episode of that new mystery series she’s hooked on.
This is how I found myself alone in Walla Walla, Washington, with a little bit of time on my hands. My mother and I had spent the first part of the day tasting wine, and she was ready for a break, but I wasn’t ready to hang it up quite yet. So, on the recommendation of a friend, I walked over to the recently opened Passatempo Taverna, the new restaurant and bar from Jim German, the former owner and founder of the beloved, and now-closed, Jimgermanbar in nearby teensy-tiny Waitsburg.
Passatempo, on the other hand, is in Walla Walla proper, in a part of town that feels marginally less like wine Disneyland than the main drag. Here, many of the buildings appear to have retained their original façades, and the other tenants are agricultural lending offices and charity thrift stores. I spot Passatempo’s retro, pill-shaped neon entrance sign mounted perpendicular a brick façade on the south side of Main Street, and duck inside.
Blinking in the cool, low light, the first thing I see is a whole leg of Prosciutto di Parma, mounted, sculpturally, on a stand in the center of the dining room. A server carefully carves translucent slivers of meat and fat from the top with a chef’s knife, slowly deepening the parabolic curve on the top of the leg. It’s a good sign.
I take a seat at the marble-topped bar, a narrow U-shape bisecting the dining room. The exterior may have retained its historic feel, but inside, Passatempo is contemporary all the way, with reclaimed wood, exposed ducting and a light, airy feel. The restaurant has just opened for the day, and it’s not busy yet; next to me, a winemaker nurses a pint of IPA while he chats with the bartender about when the vines will flower this year.
A Punt e Mes and soda arrives with a clink, bubbles dancing atop sparkling, perfectly clear ice cubes. My plans to avoid spoiling my dinner out the window, I order several nibbles from the happy hour menu, including some gorgeously seasoned Castelvetrano olives with citrus and chili as well as a few slices of that impossible to ignore Prosciutto, which arrive in appealingly irregular tangles.
Today, Walla Walla is absolutely jam-packed with winery tasting rooms and all the trappings that go along with them. But underneath the olive oil stores and bistro cafes, you can still sense something of Walla Walla’s Wild West past, especially outside the compact city center. But if it wasn’t for the statue commemorating Walla Walla Chief Peopeomoxmox I’d passed on my way, sitting at the bar at Passatempo feels just like Rome — tangerine espresso machine and all. Jim German has managed to turn an eating establishment into a miniature vacation, a portal to another place, with amazing accuracy. No wonder Passatempo’s website leads with a quote from Italian-Cuban writer Italo Calvino: “In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of utmost precision.”