Pastaria pays homage to rustic Italian fare

Pastaria’s canestri cacio e pepe. Photo: Yana Hotter. 

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Located in Clayton on the ground floor of the Centene building, Pastaria is the fourth restaurant for Gerard Craft, chef and three-time James Beard award nominee. The food pays homage to the rustic-Italian fare that Craft and chef de cuisine Adam Altnether experienced on their culinary adventures through the Italian countryside last year.

 The chic space features tall ceilings, exposed pipes, concrete floors, and a hodgepodge of bare wooden tables and chairs enough to seat 120.  The open kitchen boasts a stunning, wood-burning stone oven, whose ornate ceramic tile design proclaims “La Verita,” “truth.” The oven, maintained at a temperature of 750 degrees, is used to cook everything from salmon to chicken to pizza. A seat along the back kitchen counter lets diners observe the craftsmanship that goes into preparing this rather simple but classic Italian fare. The framed photos above the kitchen depict the Italian families and individuals who shared their kitchens and culinary wisdom with Craft and Altnether.


 The menu here changes daily, and entree and vegetable selections are only available after 5 p.m. We began our dinner with a small order (quite enough for three) of shaved kale ($6.95), which consisted of chopped raw kale liberally dressed with a rich Caesar-like dressing and garnished with toasted breadcrumbs.  The kale remained crisp under the heavy dressing and the breadcrumbs provided nice textural contrast.

 Our favorite salad, however, was the orange salad ($7.95). Don’t let the combination of fresh oranges and green olives dissuade you. These simple ingredients have a magical affinity for one another, creating an explosion of sweet, juicy, and piquant flavors. The garnish of thinly sliced red onions and olive oil elevated this dish to star-status. We used the complimentary slices of Companion farm bread to sop up the tantalizing juices.

 An order of roasted brussels sprouts ($5.95) as an appetizer arrived halved, tossed in olive oil and chili flakes, and roasted until charred and caramelized.  This is a perfect example of how Pastaria uses few ingredients and straightforward preparations to attain culinary perfection. Less impressive were the crispy risotto balls ($7.95), six to an order, accompanied by an herb aioli and a marinara sauce for dipping.  The balls are, as advertised, crisp, though they were short on flavor without the dip.

 While Pastaria is mainly about the pastas and pizzas, the menu offers a few entrées for diners who prefer a more traditional meal, or are watching their carb intake, or are gluten-free. We sampled the wood oven roasted salmon ($18.95). The salmon, roasted to perfection, was crisp and tender, served skin-side up on a bed of roasted and smashed fingerling potatoes and oven-roasted cauliflower. (Our server confirmed that the kitchen would gladly sub-out the potatoes for additional vegetables.) The dish was garnished with roasted lemon slices and capers. Despite the excessively drizzled olive oil atop the salmon just before it arrived at our table, the entrée was stellar.

 Among the pasta choices, we selected pistachio ravioli ($15.95) and canestri cacio e pepe ($14.95). The former consisted of two-inch, handmade raviolis stuffed with a puree of braised ground pistachios, mascarpone cheese, and salt, and topped with a lemony-brown butter sauce that was applied a bit too heavy-handed for my taste. The latter dish, large elbow-type macaroni shells, were prepared al dente, firm to the bite, and bathed in a luscious combination of melted pecorino (a salty sheep’s milk cheese) and grana padano (a hard, semi-aged cheese resembling Parmesan) and seasoned with black pepper.  This dish is seductive, a perfect marriage of texture and flavor that would be right at home in a rural Italian kitchen, or in mine!

 The dough used for the pizzas at Pastaria is hand-stretched until almost transparent. Topped and briefly baked on the hot stone surface of the restaurant’s oven, it emerges light and blistered, barely crisp, and quite chewy. We opted for the margherita ($10.95), which was ever so lightly topped with fresh tomato, mozzarella, and basil. It was beautiful. If your preference is for pizzas that ooze cheese and are topping-heavy, go elsewhere.

 Be sure to leave room for dessert. The salted caramel gelato ($6.95), with its satiny smooth creamy texture and contrasting flavors, was divine. Cannolis  ($6.95) are delicately crisp shells filled with a sweet, cream-cheese-enriched pastry cream. Three to a serving, they are accompanied by a perfectly balanced balsamic-flavored strawberry sauce and salted pistachios. Mama Rodolico’s tiramisu ($6.95) defies gravity, and each heavenly bite of this 5-layer masterpiece sings with the subtle flavors of each of its elements. 

 Available for take-out are the house-made gelatos ($6.95), fresh pastas ($5.95 lb., which can be refrigerated for two months) sauces ($7.95-$9.95 pint), and sausages from our local Salume Beddu. Bottles of Italian olive oil and local honey are also for sale.

 Our service was exceptional. On both visits, the waiters were well informed and dishes arrived in a timely fashion. Should you arrive between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., expect to wait. Reservations are not accepted.

 Pastaria offers a wide selection of wines by the glass ($8-$9) or the bottle, liters of house white and red ($15), locally brewed beers on tap and many others by the bottle, and a full-service bar.

 The opening of Pastaria was eagerly anticipated and has, in so many ways, lived up to the hype. It is rare to find a restaurant that offers such variety with a consistent level of craft evident in each and every dish.