Friday, August 16, 2013

Dinner | Pastaria

Two weekends ago, I made a long weekend trip out to St. Louis to visit my dear friend Amy. I arrived early that afternoon, where we spent it catching up until it was time to go to dinner {1,2} at Pastaria, Chef Gerard Craft's latest culinary venture in Clayton, a neighborhood of St. Louis, which opened last fall as a no-reservations, "casual and family-centric fresh pasta/pizza joint."

01A - Pastaria
{4,6} As clear as it is in its name, the restaurant offers dishes with housemade pastas, which you can watch being made from the window display outside. You can also purchase fresh pasta and homemade gelati from the take-away counter. {5} The kitchen opens into {3} the dining room that has {7} cleverly mismatched rustic furniture and tableware to underscore the relaxed environment of Pastaria.

I love the logo (looks like a rogue piece of spaghetti) and the graphic on the menu -- very appropriate and fun!

As with any good Italian restaurant, there will always be bread, with the hope that it comes out warm, fresh out of the oven. With that, Pastaria certainly delivered!

To start, Amy and I made sure to have the crispy risotto balls with mozzarella and Grana Padano along with sides of herb aioli and marinara sauce. These were (ahem, excuse my word choice) AMAZEBALLS. You know that pleasant feeling you get when you bite into a just-fried mozzarella stick? Well increase that feeling ten-fold and you will be where I was when I tasted my first risotto ball. It is melty, nicely cheesy, savory, substantial, and crispy all at once. Dip them in some marinara, and you'll want to have another dozen of them. It was probably for the best that we each only had three each. Any more than that would be considered dangerous.

To counteract the greasy goodnss of the crispy risotto balls, we also shared the orange salad with green olives, red onions, tarragon, and extra virgin olive oil. Though a very simple preparation, it was very refreshing and a good mix of acidity to cut through the other savory dishes we would have that evening.

As my main course, I had the pistachio ravioli with pistachios, mint, lemon brown butter, and Grana Padano. The pasta itself was incredibly fresh -- you can undoubtedly taste the difference -- and quite possibly some of the best I've ever had, as fresh pasta done right can truly be had to find outside of Italy. These exquisite little pillows were a mix of that obnoxiously good, silky nuttiness you get from roasted pistachios with the sweet creaminess of browned butter. The subtle hint of mint was a nice touch, too.

Amy had the canestri cacio e pepe with pecorino, Grana Padano, and black pepper. The canestri were huge and ridged version of elbow macaroni-shaped pasta. Cacio e pepe is essentially "cheese and pepper" in Italian, and it is the simplicity yet genius behind this dish. A creamy blend of pecorino and Grana padano melts into the curvy ridges of the canestri while it all gets balanced out with the generous sprinkling of freshly ground pepper throughout. This dish is quite heavy (don't fill too much beforehand), but that doesn't make it any less great. The hollow holes within the canestri gave us enough surface area of pasta to really enjoy the cacio e pepe sauce.

We shared a side of the roasted Brussels sprouts with olive oil and chili -- freaking amazing! In my eyes, you can't really screw up roasted Brussels sprouts -- salt, pepper, and olive oil should be enough to do the trick. It's just a fun bonus when you have other things (like chili in this case) thrown into the mix. Loved the browned bits on the outer leaves of the sprouts, which gave them a light charredness to them. These went really well alongside our pasta dishes.

Dessert, on the other hand, didn't seem to be Pastaria's strong suit. We shared two desserts, including the cannoli with pastry cream, strawberry balsamic, and salted pistachios, which was pretty disappointing. I guess I had assumed pastry cream was going to be the authentic mascarpone typically piped inside a cannoli shell, but the pastry cream seemed deflated and just not what my Little-Italy-seasoned-palate is used to. Plus, where were the chocolate nibs?!

We also had the dark chocolate tart with whipped cream an candied hazelnuts, which didn't really seem to resemble a tart except in its shape. It was like a dense chocolate cake more than anything else. I did enjoy the candied hazelnuts here, but everything else was meh. I can't speak from personal experience, but Amy did say that their gelato was quite lovely from what she remembered from her past visits. So thinking back on it now, we probably shoud've stuck with multiple scoops of different flavors, and we would've been happier campers. But it's okay -- everything else shined so brightly, that it wasn't even an issue!

Findings: Given that this was my first real meal in St. Louis, I was pretty impressed (read: REALLY impressed) with what Chef Gerard Craft had cooking at Pastaria (little did I know, it would be indicative of the rest of my meals in this fantastic little city). Those crispy risotto balls continue to haunt me even now, and I dream about those pastas from time to time. Pistachios packed inside ravioli? Ingenious! Plus, knowing that every single pasta dish uses fresh, housemade/extruded pastas just enhances your dining experience that much more. The orange salad was also divine -- as I am sure the other salads are, too -- and even though dessert was pretty much a letdown, I left with quite the happy stomach. We really, really should've gone the gelato route (I mean, just from hearing flavors like toasted coconut, lemon verbena, fresh chocoalte mint, and raspberry black peppercorn, it should've been a no-brainer!).

That's the best part about summing up the experience, though. You can always say the right thing to alleviate any regrets -- there's always next time! I definitely know where Amy and I will be the minute I'm in town next. Pastaria, with no doubt in my mind! :P Oh, and be sure to show up on the earlier side to avoid a lengthy wait -- this place gets pretty hopping around 7 PM!

Price point: $7.95 for each starter, $13.95-14.95 for each pasta, $6.95 for each dessert.

--August 2, 2013

7734 Forsyth Boulevard
St. Louis (Clayton), MO 63105

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