After my two meals at the Pasta Garage I recalled a conversation years ago when my husband and I — both Italian, both perhaps a little over the top on food — still lived in my native Arkansas. At some gathering Little Rock someone asked us where we went for Italian food. There was a pause, then we both came up with, “St. Louis.”
I tell this story not to reinforce what many people already believe, that I’m a food snob (I’m not, really), but to point out the limitations of someone with my background reviewing the Pasta Garage.
Pasta in my life is something you often have as a first course or in a very simple dinner as the prelude to a large salad. The emphasis is on the subtle interaction of pasta and sauce, neither dominating, each complimenting the other. You finish the pasta course wishing there was just a little bit more but ready to move on to what comes next.
At the Pasta Garage, a really cool looking restaurant outpost on Delaware Avenue where the owners also make the fresh pastas they sell at retail, it’s pretty much impossible to have this kind of pasta experience. The only thing on the menu, really, is pasta.
If you ask, it’s possible to get a Caesar salad, which is a lot of romaine lettuce with croutons and a Caesar dressing, but it’s not on the menu. So, if you want some variety in your meal the only choice is to bring a friend and try more than one kind of pasta. As much as I love pasta, there is something a little daunting about a whole meal that is nothing but pasta. I want some counterpoint, whether roasted vegetables or a nice piece of grilled meat or fish, or an interesting salad.
It doesn’t help that so much of the Pasta Garage’s offerings are really rich. Consider the gnocchi. I’ve tried to make these and I know enough to admire the tender potato dumplings on offer at Pasta Garage. They are something I could certainly see buying to prepare at home.
The order we tried of spinach and cheese gnocchi with an olive oil sauce ($6 for the pasta, $2 for the sauce), was good and tasty, but so rich that, even with three people taking bites, we couldn’t finish the order. Less successful was the caprese stuffed gnocchi appetizer ($6.99). It wasn’t completely clear to me how they were cooked but the last thing must have been toasting, either in an oven or on the stove top, and that left them with a cardboard-like texture and very little flavor. I’d skip that.
The most successful dish that evening was the cacio e pepe ($9.99), a Roman standard that translates as cheese and pepper. Pasta Garage’s offering was creamier than a classic version, relying on the creamy Alfredo sauce more than cheeses, but it did get the cracked pepper right and that provided those satisfying bursts of flavor that made the dish satisfying.
The least successful entree that night was the lasagna ($10.99). Here, too much was just too much. Although the sheet noodles were fresh and tasty, they were overwhelmed by the sausage, beef, ricotta and mozzarella, all almost drowned in what to my taste was a marinara sauce that relied much more on spices than tomatoes for flavor.
At lunch another day I tried the mac & cheese ($9.99), which I would recommend. Maybe, since it competed in my taste memory with the primitive American cheese and tough noodle mac and cheese of my youth, it had nowhere to go but up. Still, I thought it was a quite nice blend of pasta and smoked Gouda with little chunks of prosciutto livening up the mixture.
The fettuccine carbonara we tried at lunch ($9.99) was OK but a far cry from the dish I think of as bacon and egg pasta. At it’s best, noodles are coated in mixture of pan fried bits of bacon, pancetta or guanciale (cured pork jowl), cheese and black pepper, with eggs added in the serving bowl that are cooked slightly by the hot pasta to create a silky texture. Perhaps some fresh parsley or rosemary could be added but that’s about it. No subtle egg in the Pasta Garage version, instead it was pancetta and white cream sauce with green peas and grape tomatoes added to the mix.
This is my take away: If you are happy with a large serving of rich pasta as a meal you will probably be happy with your meal at Pasta Garage. If you expect an Italian trattoria specializing in pasta you are likely to be disappointed, particularly since, whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the food, Pasta Garage does not have a liquor license.
Jacalyn Carfagno: 859-231-1652.
Pasta Garage Italian Cafe
Where: 962 Delaware Ave.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.
Notes: Major credit cards accepted, vegetarian options, handicap accessible