Review: Pastaria in Clayton
Pastaria, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.862.6603, pastariastlcom
Perched midway up the open staircase, nursing a half carafe of affordable house Sangiovese, I had a bird’s eye view of the hustle and bustle of Pastaria, Gerard Craft’s latest eatery housed on the ground floor of the gleaming Centene Plaza skyscraper in downtown Clayton. It’s an expansive space: floor-to-ceiling windows, a soaring ceiling and seating for about 110 diners. After settling in for my hour-plus wait and nibbling, at the bar, on a few thin breadsticks – crunchy and salty, with a dusting of residual flour – I took it all in.
Further up the staircase there’s a private dining room with windows overlooking the main dining room. In the front of the house, visible from the street, is a pasta station full of giant mixers; tubs of dough; trays of dried, coiled noodles; and a couple of flour-dusted chefs. The adjacent freezer case shows off the ever-changing flavors of gelato made in-house. Along the back wall there’s the wood-burning oven anchoring the bustling open kitchen; over the hearth, fired in colorful tile, is Pastaria’s motto: “La Verità,” meaning “the truth.” One wall is lined with pizza peels signed by notable chefs from around the country; a nice touch of solidarity. The gentle aroma of butter and burning oak fill the place.
By now you probably know that Pastaria doesn’t take reservations (unless it’s for a private party of 12 or more) and that waits are measured in hours rather than minutes. But from my crow’s nest perspective during a couple of visits, the throngs of bonhomous diners didn’t seem to mind. The bar was packed, tastes of wine were free flowing, and people milled about knowing that they shared the same desire: To see what the young chef and owner of Niche, Brasserie and Taste has done this time to impress us. Ever since Craft announced that he wanted to open an inexpensive, casual, family-friendly Italian restaurant, the buzz has been incessant. Twice this year, Eater, a popular and influential national food blog, named Pastaria one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of 2012. Then in October, after only one month in business, it placed fourth in Esquire magazine’s “Most Life-Changing Pizza” poll.
Craft is known for making some gutsy moves, such as opening the nationally renowned Niche in the scruffy Benton Park neighborhood and then last month – not without controversy – moving it to the tony suburb of Clayton, next to Pastaria. But there is something to be said about the efficiency of consolidating operations, much like he did when he moved Taste next door to Brasserie in the Central West End.
Land anywhere on the menu and you’ll be pleased. It’s so homey, so unabashedly rustic, that it seems like the sort of food you’d be served in Italy by a family from the countryside or in a village osteria. Which is exactly the point. Where Niche and Brasserie were influenced by Craft’s Parisian travels, Pastaria reflects the Italian trip he and executive chef and co-owner Adam Altnether took. And it says so right on the menu: “Pastaria belongs to the people who showed us around Italy and the people who invited us into their kitchen and their homes. The menu at Pastaria will tell their stories.”
The story begins with slices of fresh, warm bread and two tiny bowls of fruity olive oil, one spiked with red pepper flakes. It ends with chilled chalices of gelato, or a decadent dessert from pastry chef Ann Croy. In between are chapters of pastas, pizza, soups, salads, appetizers, wine, vegetables and entrees. A glass of prosecco or beer with an order of six crispy risotto balls make a good start. Arborio rice, mozzarella and Grana Padano cheese are mixed, rolled, breaded, fried … and will be eaten as quickly as they arrive. The accompanying herb aioli and marinara dipping sauces are fine, but I had no problem merely popping them straight into my mouth – or as they say in Naples, “frijenno magnanno”: frying and eating. Shaved kale salad is as ubiquitous as pork belly on local menus; Pastaria tosses its version with creamy anchovy dressing, breadcrumbs and pecorino, elevating it to Caesar status.
The wine list is a well-chosen and affordable array of Italian reds and whites. And I like the casualness of serving house wines by the half-carafe (about three glasses). All but two of the 12 beers on tap are from local breweries.
The pasta dishes are comforting enough to educe anyone’s grandmother. Strozzapreti, short and twisted and perfectly al dente, is the vehicle of choice to which a thick Bolognese sauce, concentrated with beefy tomato flavor, clings. Oven-roasted lasagna comes with seasonal vegetables; when I was there, a mixture of diced carrots, broccoli, onion and red pepper – cooked yet crisp – and shredded chicken were held together with fontina cheese and a béchamel sauce and layered between tidy squares of lasagna noodles. It’s a far cry from the standard mass; I could taste each vegetable clearly. Pappardelle noodles, long and wide, are tossed with smoked pulled pork, thinly sliced apples and a subtle mascarpone sauce. Do not ignore this dish and its slightly sweet, meaty, smoky flavors. The eight pizzas, while not life-changing, are superb. The light tomato “sauce” on the finocchiona (fennel) salami pizza was fresh and vibrant, the crust thin, chewy, crispy and properly blistered around the edges. It also had that delicious slightly smoky burnt flavor only obtained from a high-heat, wood-fired oven.
Throughout my meal, I kept thinking of that display case of gelato: salted caramel, dark chocolate, pumpkin with bacon and cashew bits, fresh basil, goat cheese, and on and on. Both the salted caramel and dark chocolate were intensely flavored and creamy without the heaviness of ice cream, just as it should be with gelato. Perhaps it’s the American influence, but the servings would be just as satisfying at half the size and price. Mama Rodolico’s Tiramisu, presumably named after one of the Italian hosts, is a beautiful sight: five layers high, airy and cloud-like, and only slightly sweet. There was silence at the table after the first bite.
There are other dishes – roasted chicken, braised beef, wild salmon – I’ll have to try those sometime. Pastaria is a story I don’t want to end.
AT A GLANCE
Pastaria, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.862.6603, pastariastl.com
DON’T MISS DISHES
Any pizza, pappardelle with smoked pork, any gelato
Boisterous and convivial with plenty of attention paid to details. Reservations only for private party of 12 or more. Validated parking in the attached garage.
Pizzas: $10 to $13. Pastas: $11 to $17 (add $6 for gluten-free). Entrees: $17 to $19.
Mon. to Thu. – 5 to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 5 to 11 p.m., Sun. – 5 to 9 p.m.