Locale Profile: Pastaio

IMG_0453It’s almost hidden, but for a small glowing sign that says Pastaio.

I first saw it when I was driving lost on the West End of Providence, and I made a mental note — this is where that new restaurant is I’ve been wanting to try. It’s tucked in a corner at the end of Dexter field, and without the help of Google maps, I might not have intentionally found it again. I’d read their online description: “new American restaurant, with inspiration from Mediterranean cuisine, driven by local farms,” and to be honest, I stopped reading as soon as I saw “Mediterranean.” But when I learned their pasta is handmade, I called my favorite food friend, Jeremy, and said, “This is where we’re going before our summer vacation,” — him to Croatia and me to Greece, which are both, ironically, part of the Mediterranean.

We arrived on a Sunday night, around 8:30, when there was still ambient light outside. We’d had a long day of walking, beaching and visiting various friends, so we were excited to sit down and enjoy a meal.

We were immediately shown to a window seat. The waning daylight filled our space, and small, lively potted plants decorated our view. The interior was one big room with hardwood floors, green cushioned chairs, and a split wall design: green on bottom, white on top. At the far end was a bar, which almost looked as if it were a window into a café. Only two paintings hung on the walls, wooden beams lined the ceiling, and light fixtures hung in orderly rows;  it was comfortable. A little noisy — but comfortable.

There was one exception: I was freezing. We were directly in line of an air conditioning unit, and since the day had cooled with the evening, I was shivering. I hate to complain about temperature, but when our waitress greeted us, she said, “You look cold. Would you like me to turn that off?” And a few minutes later, the blasts ceased, and I could fully appreciate the menus before me.

IMG_0493The menu was strapped to a thin block of wood, listing six small plates and six entrees. Despite the “smallness” of the menu, there was enough variety to keep Jeremy and me in perplexed uncertainty. In fact, the one dish we knew we were going to order (the pappardelle), we ended up not getting. But I’ll get back to that.

Re-enter our waitress, Katie. Complete with tattoos, a few piercings and full knowledge of the menu, she was the star of the night. I had to thank her multiple times, and she was insistent that I not worry. “I’m here to guide you,” she assured me. First, I needed advice on red wine.

“Do you like sweet, dry, full-bodied?”

“I generally order malbec.”

“Oh, that’s easy. The Cellario E’Rosso is the closest to a malbec.”

Then Jeremy and I were confused about entrees. We knew we wanted handmade pasta, but there were two options. We’d never heard of strozzapreti, so we asked if she could explain it.

“WITH JOY!” she said. “I love to tell this story! It literally means, ‘priest strangler,’ but here’s why it’s called that…” and she proceeded to tell us an amazing story that I won’t ruin for you here. But I suggest you go and ask to hear it.

IMG_0458She sold us on the strozzapreti, but that eliminated pappardelle (should we get two pasta dishes)? Jeremy and I considered the black sea bass and chicken Milanese, but Katie said the latter was her favorite. “I’ve been ruined for all other chicken thanks to the Milanese.” (And no surprise: the head chef and co-owner, Adam Baffoni, has connections to a certain farm.) The strozzapreti and chicken Milanese it was, then. “Those two dishes speak to me,” Katie said, and when food speaks to a person, I trust it all the more.

For appetizers, Jeremy and I ordered the local baby greens and cured fluke (at the suggestion of Katie, of course, because “these lighter appetizers balance your heavier entrees”). After all that hard work — for Katie, that is — we sat back with our fresh focaccia and garlic-infused olive oil, sipping wine and beer, and it was bliss.

The food came out quickly. The fluke was the perfect summer dish: Served with cucumber, summer squash and crispy shallots, it had a fresh, almost citrusy flavor that reminded me of ceviche. The salad, also perfect for summer, was dressed with strawberries, pancetta and a roasted garlic vinaigrette. I concur with Katie in that both dishes make excellent pre-courses for heavier entrees.

Our strozzapreti (and its accompanying roasted veggies) was served in a sweet corn crema that was scrape-the-plate worthy. These are thick, round noodles, and they taste as if they were gnocchi in pasta form. It’s like nothing I’ve ever had before, and it was exceptional. The chicken Milanese, which arrived as two breasts of breaded chicken (easy for splitting!) was not as life-changing as I’d hoped it would be — it was a little dry — but the lentils it was served with made up for it.

We finished the meal with a handmade strawberry rhubarb ice cream with a homemade (by Katie!) graham cracker crumble. It was both creamy and light, with a slight tang to counter the sweet. It the perfect note to end on.

Before we left, I asked what Pastaio meant. “It’s Italian for ‘one who makes pasta.’” That is something they do with supreme care — and not only their pasta, but every detail, from garlic-infused olive oil to graham cracker crust. These are handcrafted with care. And that is the true Italian, and Mediterranean, experience.  

9 Parade St, PVD; Open for dinner Wednesday – Sunday

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