Pastaria may turn out to be a learning experience for some folks. At the same time, it may also be some proof that St. Louisans are becoming more accepting of pizza that doesn't conform to what they ate in, say, middle school. The new venture of Gerard Craft (Niche, Brasserie by Niche) a half-block off Hanley in downtown Clayton is a great combination of new and familiar.
Almost unnoticeably connected to its sibling Niche, newly moved in one door west, it luxuriates in a feeling of space, mainly due to its immense two-story ceiling. Somehow, this manages to swallow a surprising amount of din when the place is rocking, as it commonly is. Because Pastaria is hot, no question about it, and not just with the usual gotta-go-to-the-newest-spot crowd. Craft said he wanted it to be family-friendly, and so it is. No, there are no placemats and crayons, but there are high chairs and a children's menu. On a Sunday evening, almost half the tables had junior diners and a remarkably well-contained group they were, too, all sitting in seats, high chairs or laps, having a good time. One young lady carefully held up a looooong piece of macaroni and nibbled from the bottom, several faces bore clear evidence of enjoying the pasta sauces and none of this felt inappropriate, so casual was the atmo. Not a soul the whole evening had a meltdown, not even any adults. Wondrous.
No reservations. Period. But chairs and a bar at which to wait, a chance to watch fresh pasta being made and to inspect the gelato case. And to read the menu, speeding things once seated.
"Sorta close to Italy" is the motto, and that's reasonably accurate. Italian restaurants wouldn't have pasta as their main course at dinner, for instance. The pasta there would not be the consistency of Beef-a-roni, and I promise you Pastaria's certainly isn't. For those who couldn't make sense of al dente pasta, here is the classroom. This is fresh pasta, and it remains a little chewy, no dry core at the center, but definitely something the mouth must concentrate on more than St. Louisans, and most Americans, are accustomed to. These really are dishes that are as much about the pastas as about the sauces.
First courses are plentiful, and it would be easy to make a meal just of them. Crispy risotto balls are small versions of suppli, risotto wrapped around a piece of cheese, breaded and fried. Perhaps the size of a shooter marble, deeply tender and creamy inside, it's hard to decide if the two sauces served with them gild the lily or not. What looks like ranch dressing turns out to be tarragon sauce, absolutely delicious; the other sauce is tomato based, thinnish, and at first a little ho hum. But then there's something unexpected, a little more acidic than ordinary and perhaps a little coolness - have they slipped some mint in it? Good with either sauce, good without, too.
Craft offers kale, the vegetable of the year, in a new guise. It is not quite so thinly sliced as to be called shaved, but the salad with it is carefully shredded to increase its tooth-friendly qualities. He then dresses it in true Caesar-style and tops it with big crumbs of toasted bread and pecorino cheese. Brutus would be green with envy. Kale is so strong-willed it doesn't wilt even after being dressed, meaning the generous serving's leftovers will wait unaffected until tomorrow's smile-inducing lunch.
Bruschetta, slices of grilled bread toasted in the wood-burning oven, is topped with slices of red radishes pan roasted with lemon and garlic. The color is amazing - sitting at the counter by the kitchen, it looked like a pan of sliced strawberries. The crunch is softened considerably, the characteristic sharpness mellowed, but the lemon and garlic round things off nicely.
Pizza, whether for a main or for a shared first course, arrives quickly. That wood-burning oven, so hot that a pizza placed on its metal floor begins to steam immediately, is watched carefully, the pies pivoted this way and that to bake evenly. These are medium-thick, about 10 inches across, a tender but chewy crust. The Roman carries tomato, serious garlic, small chunks of smoky bacon, mozzarella and pecorino cheeses and a little chili oil, a fine melange of contrasts. It was indeed much like what I ate in Rome three months ago, although the crust is thicker. Pizza provincialism is Out. There are lots of ways to make good pizza. Get used to it.
As to the pasta, be prepared for some new shapes. Garganelli, shaped like what we used to call banana curls, shares a bowl with tender wine-braised beef, green olives, and a shower of lemon peel, garlic and parsley. Strozzapreti, which translates as "priest stranglers", referring, apparently, to greedy clerics, SHAPE wears the house Bolognese sauce, a meaty tribute that seems to include some of the red sauce for the risotto balls, and a little cream as well, a common addition in Bologna.
Pappardelle, a wide, flat noodles often used with game and other hearty meats, here pairs up with smoked pork, a little apple and some mascarpone cheese. The effect is almost barbecued, with the smokiness and the sweetness of the apple, and adds up to a dish that makes a (happy) pig of the diner. And then there's the cacio e pepe using a canestri pasta. Canstri are large, ridged and u-shaped, new to me. Cacio e pepe translates as cheese and pepper, an old Roman pasta, and what I had my last night in Rome. The version here, using Grana Padano and pecorino cheeses along with a generous amount of black pepper, is as good as that one was. It's not a handsome dish, the cheese being about the same color as the pasta, with just the flecks of pepper. But it's incredibly satisfying, one of those proofs that good, simple ingredients can blow you away. There are three non-pasta entrees, by the way.
They're making their own gelato, from simple (chocolate from Springfield, MO's Askinosie's chocolate) to elaborate (Meyer lemon curd); our pal's vanilla and chocolate was first-rate. The delightful surprise was the panna cotta, normally a snoozer of a dessert. Made with yogurt that had to be the rich Greek sort, it was nicely unctuous, not at all rubbery, and topped with a tart cherry compote and toasted, salted sliced almonds, a fab combination. The only glitch in things was the dessert just referred to as birthday cake. It looks like fun with sprinkles and meringue "marshmallows". But the yellow cake was overbeaten, making it tough and unappealing despite the generous lashings of frosting. There are plenty of better choices.
Really nice service, warm and casually knowledgeable, especially for folks curious about what they're about to consume. And good value overall. This spot is going to stick around for a while, is my guess.
7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner nightly
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Pastas and pizzas: $10-$16