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AL DENTE IN THE FAMILY

Some people are lucky enough to have fond memories of a mother calling out "Supper time!" to a horde of hungry youngsters who vied for the last bite of homemade meatball. But for those whose food pasts contained no more warmth than a cold can of SpaghettiOs twisting angrily against the buzz of an electric can opener, Pasta's just rang the dinner bell.

Our first experience with this southern Italian restaurant and its owners, Ignazio "Nat" and Lucy Mulei, came during a spur-of-the-moment stop after a shopping expedition. It was late in the afternoon, and we were too tired to start planning a meal, so we thought we'd take something home. At that hour, the casual-yet-classy dining room was empty except for the hustling waitstaff anticipating a dinner rush and a woman at the bar eating from a bowlful of mussels. She turned out to be Lucy, and she jumped up from her food to take care of us. But not with the disgusted air of someone who's been interrupted--no, Lucy was as welcoming as if we were her kids' childhood playmates back for a visit from college. She brought out a basket filled with fresh-baked garlic knots "to munch on while you wait for your order" and supplied water and coffee. Then she did an extraordinary thing.

She offered us some of her mussels.
We declined, but we did so with regret. The mussels looked great sitting in a pool of tomato broth in that oversized bowl, and they smelled even better--we had been hypnotized by the scent of garlic from the moment we walked in the door. Fortunately, we had those garlic knots to fill our noses and our bellies, and fill we did. These innocent-looking balls of bread had a slick of olive oil across their smooth tops, an adhesive to which stuck bits of romano cheese and minced garlic. Between bites we fielded questions from Lucy, who wanted to know if this was our first visit (yes), how we found out about them (we drove by), and if we knew who Frank Lechuga is (you bet!). Lechuga sings Sinatra better than Ol' Blue Eyes himself at local clubs--including, it turns out, Pasta's, on Wednesday nights.

By the time our food was ready, Lucy knew my mother's maiden name, my shoe size and my recipe for getting tomato stains out of clothing (soak the garment in cold water for half an hour, then rub with a bar of soap and wash with laundry detergent). She, in turn, had offered another basket of garlic knots three times and some of her mussels twice, as well as the information that she and Nat are Italian; that they owned seafood restaurants in New York for nine years; and that the mussels were really good. As Lucy handed us the neatly packed bag--after her son had checked to be sure everything was there--she leaned toward us with a big smile and said, "I threw in some tiramisu. Enjoy."

We did.
But first we wolfed down a serving of that evening's special, chicken Tuscany ($13.95), whose sun-dried-tomato and artichoke cream sauce somehow managed to hold up through a half-hour car ride and further torture in the microwave. Under that superb sauce, the linguine was bulky with chicken, the thick shards of white meat glossy from a quick sauteeing. The portion was plenty big enough for two, especially after we found a bag of ten more garlic knots beneath our entree in the takeout package, the wrapping wilted from the heat of the just-baked rolls. And then there was that tiramisu, a triangular wedge of spongy cake soaked with espresso and rum, layered horizontally between fluffs of mascarpone--and topped with a sadly stiff, sugary icing.

Just a taste of Pasta's was enough to whet our appetite for a return visit. This time, we left the kid with a babysitter and picked a night when Lechuga was exercising his pipes. We were in the mood for love--and we weren't surprised when we got it from our waitress, who lavished us with the same sort of attention we had received before. Once again, the garlic knots kept coming--and when we found they weren't as good after they'd been sitting in the kitchen's bread warmer, the waitress cheerfully replaced them. Then Nat came to our table and cheerfully checked on things, as he did at every other table in the place--no mean feat, since the 150-seat dining room was nearly full (it has since been expanded to hold 300).

"The customer is always right," Nat says--convincingly, I might add--when I later call while he is pounding out pesto. "If someone doesn't like what they're eating and I find out about it, I go right over--the staff knows to stop me, whatever I'm doing, because this, this is an emergency--and I try to correct the problem. If they say it's okay, no problem, I don't take that for an answer. I correct the problem or I give them a gift certificate for the next visit." (He then goes on to explain that he offers the gift certificate in lieu of an immediate free meal because the "world just doesn't work that way anymore"--a cynical but practical way to do business.)

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