Remembrance of Things Pasta
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. -- Henry Hill, GoodFellas
And as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to find the perfect Italian restaurant: the kind of place where goodfellas would go for linguini and clams, some sausage and peppers, maybe a cheap bottle of warm Lambrusco after a long day of whackin' snitches and planting bodies. Scorsese's scene where all the guys are making Sunday dinner in jail? Beautiful. I can't tell you how many times that scene has been mentioned by potential bosses concerned that maybe some twitchy, long-haired Irish kid shouldn't be allowed near their precious aglio e olio, and I can't tell you how many jobs I've gotten by answering back in my best imitation of a faded Brooklyn tough guy's accent, "Aw, come on...! And when Paulie starts slicing the garlic with a razor blade so it'll melt into the sauce? That's beautiful, man. That's perfect. That's the only way to make a right sauce."
When casting about for the proper metaphors to describe our lives, kitchen people have an obvious fondness for mob movies and war movies. The notions of duty, family and loyalty, as well as scenes of extreme mercenary sensibility and bloody goddamn mayhem, pepper these flicks and, in turn, flavor our communal lexicon. Most lifers can quote with equal facility from Full Metal Jacket, Godfather I and II and Larousse Gastronomique when standing on the hotline, desperately trying to throw together sixty quarts of a béchamel mother thirty minutes before the start of service because some stone-crazy alcoholic prep cook got arrested for showing his sausage and peppers to a bartender the night before and hasn't yet made bail. Personally, I'm a big fan of Robert De Niro's baseball speech in The Untouchables -- the one he gives right before taking a Louisville Slugger upside the head of a traitorous lieutenant -- when firing a guy who let down the team. A lot of chefs like Michael Corleone's kiss-off in Godfather II -- "You broke my heart, Fredo..." -- but that's just a matter of taste. They both work well and are further proof that without the Mafia (and for more reasons than most people are comfortable admitting), there'd be a lot fewer good Italian restaurants in this country. And a lot fewer good movies.
Needless to say, I've yet to find that perfect ristorante. The hard truth of the curve on which I grade Italian restaurants, the real bitch that consigns most of them to that vast pool of nothing special, is that the closer they come to my fantasy ideal, the more the little things start to matter. What at first seems like a contender -- a place putting out authentic cucina rustica in a great space with a good crowd and Sinatra on the Muzak -- can be tripped up by the stupidest things. Bad pictures on the walls, too much parsley in the sassolino -- anything. Some people might suspect that this is because I never want to find that perfect little joint, and those people would be right. Because what the hell would I do after I found it?
That said, my search recently took me to The Bent Noodle, a bright, casual, seven-year-old eatery in an Aurora strip mall that's small enough to feel comfy and personable, but large enough to handle the suburban crowds that flock here for big plates of pasta. And while my meals weren't perfect, this place does do some things well -- even very well. With the gamberi fritti, for example, the kitchen lightly floured rock shrimp (those little buggers most infamously used to top salads at cheapskate corporate Christmas parties), then tossed 'em in the fryer -- but only briefly. Knowing it wouldn't take much to turn these diminutive critters into vaguely shrimpy rubber bands, the kitchen wisely undercooked them and pulled the gamberi from the fritti early so that they were finished simply by the heat retained in the fryer oil. And while the shrimp were still hot and damp, the kitchen did something else right: It tossed them with garlic, parsley, a little oregano, some crushed red-pepper flakes and a squeeze of lemon. Do this before the shrimp go in the oil, and all that good stuff is wasted, either falling off into the bubbling heat of the fryer -- making a godawful mess that some poor, pissed-off fry cook has to scrape off the vanes every night -- or simply disappearing as all the life and flavor is cooked out of the shrimp until it winds up tasting like something off the assembly line at Red Lobster. Finally, the kitchen finished off the plate with a workhorse marinara kicked up with some more crushed red pepper and lemon, and that was it. Easy, straightforward and addictive as hell. Because of my rapidly expanding girth (I've added three inches to my pants size in six months), I generally leave about half of whatever I'm eating on my plate. But at the Bent Noodle -- and for the first time in a long time -- I asked for seconds. The gamberi fritti was that good.
The chicken marsala (for which the Noodle has a reputation and crows about on both its menu and its Web site) was fine -- not blow-my-mind fantastic, but certainly better than average. It was finished with a superior wine sauce that was smooth and buttery and carried just a touch of sharp alcohol bite. The carbonara al farfalle was good, too, made with big chunks of not-too-spicy, rough-cut capicola, sliced green snap peas (which added an unexpected sweetness and texture to a preparation that would have been very plain without them), and diced tomatoes in a thick, roasted-garlic cream sauce. The tomatoes acted like many small sponges, soaking up all the flavors of cappy, garlic and cream, so that spearing a chunk or two with every bite of bowtie pasta was critical. With the penne pomodoro fresco, on the other hand, the finely chopped tomatoes came coated in a glossy sheen of olive oil (the real stuff, too, not the cheap, blended crap) that kept them separate from the garlic, the fresh basil and the black and crushed red peppers, and kept the flavors nakedly bold on each bite of pasta.
On the menu, it says that if the Bent Noodle's minestrone isn't the best you've ever tasted, the owners want your recipe. Strong words, right? After all, there are a lot of Italian nanas out there who are awfully proud of their soups. But I don't think the Bent Noodle has much to worry about. Minestrone is supposed to be a delicious mess -- a mishmash of pasta, white beans, sausage, soup veggies and melted parmesan, all swimming in a tomato broth to which everyone who passes the pot has added a little something -- and while I don't know what recipe this kitchen followed, the resulting mix had an appropriately rough-edged flavor. The noodles were limp, the white beans stiff, and the soft, un-cased sausage had bled a little soul into an already punchy broth gone thick on the stovetop. Layers of herbs and flavors competed for attention, butting rudely against each other from one spoonful to the next so that one bite was heavy on the pepper but too easy on the cheese; the next was sweet, the next spicy. Taken as a whole, this was a soup worth bragging about.
But then came the linguini and clams (served with a great slab of grill-scarred focaccia), with al dente fettucine swimming in a broth of diced tomatoes, herbs and too-small baby clams out of a jar. Served in a too-large bowl, the entree became a two-tiered affair: a belly's worth of plain, slightly greasy noodles followed immediately by thin clam soup. And it was a soup that badly needed salt, but I'm pretty sure the kitchen had exhausted its supply by using every grain it could scrounge on an order of Asiago artichoke crostini. Spread on grilled bread and topped with fresh tomatoes, this stuff -- a pale paste about the color and consistency of wet spackle -- was so salty, so unbelievably, staggeringly, mind-blowingly salty, that I could feel every cell in my body contracting with a sucking sound that people three tables away must have heard. After the first bite, I was stricken with a headache of the sort generally associated with an MSG overdose and was forced to kill the pain with copious doses of red wine from the Bent Noodle's reasonably priced and understandably Italo-centric wine list. Although $4.75 for a house red is pretty cheap and even the bottles rarely strayed beyond the thirty-dollar range, when you're guzzling the grape as a survival tool, your bill can really start to climb.
And if I hadn't already been drinking, the veal parmesan would have driven me there. It was indescribably awful -- overcooked, desiccated, topped with a rubbery sheet of provolone that tasted like Saran Wrap, and so acidic with oregano and charred herbs that it seemed almost carbonated. And the pizza should be avoided by anyone who doesn't have a sentimental attachment to the pies they served in high school cafeterias: bland crust studded with burned grains of corn meal, topped by sour tomato sauce and cheese -- lots and lots of cheese.
Although the Bent Noodle doesn't come close to that Italian restaurant of my dreams, I'm a lot more forgiving of places like these that never even approached contender status. The dining room is comfortable (with smoking and a full menu available in the bar), the staff friendly and welcoming, and there's nothing on the board of fare that should cause the least amount of alarm in even the pickiest of eaters. Bring the kids, bring the grandparents (even the ones from the Old Country), bring the wife for a nice, long lunch, and no one will be disappointed.
Unless, of course, they're looking for the perfect Italian restaurant.
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