(To be published by South Bay Accent magazine)
One of the world’s most addictive carbs is pasta, from the dried, boiled spaghetti with red sauce from a jar that busy moms serve their hungry kids to exquisitely handmade noodles enveloped by made-from-scratch sauce in fine restaurants. Although it’s abundantly available in markets everywhere — typically dried or mass produced — pasta purists often seek out the fresh, local variety. A must-have on Italian restaurant menus, pasta has slithered its delicious way into the happy mouths of patrons in many high-end restaurants in general, where a pasta dish or two is now common.
As if pasta lovers needed further encouragement, a recent study by Canadian researchers announced that this beloved starch doesn’t, in fact, encourage weight gain due to its low glycemic index and might even aid dieters compared to other carbohydrates. Of course, when it’s smothered in cheesy, oily carbonara sauce, all bets are off.
Fresh pasta — from toothy noodles to those love pillows of filled dough — hasn’t ever gone out of style and the relatively recent opening of two notable South Bay restaurants is a reminder of the culinary heights that pasta can achieve. Michelin-starred chef Peter Armellino of Saratoga’s Plumed Horse launched a cute, counter-service spot across the street called Pasta Armellino last winter that has carb lovers swooning. A little earlier, Vino Enoteca opened its classy doors in Palo Alto, also delivering killer pasta dishes to blissed-out guests.
According to the restaurant’s executive chef, Nadiv Geiger, making outstanding pasta in house takes equipment and commitment. He employs imported Italian flour produced from heirloom wheat for his egg-based pastas and every dish is made from scratch. Well, almost everything. “I’ll leave it to the professionals in Parma, Italy, to make my prosciutto,” he laughs.
Nadiv Geiger makes terrific pasta at Vino Enoteca in Palo Alto.
His spacious kitchen has a sizeable extruder for the more unusual pasta shapes, not a common device in most restaurants, and his crew slightly air dries, portions and freezes the non-egg pastas to produce ultimate texture and consistency. Geiger explains that similar approaches can be found in other high-end restaurants but that many such establishments without an extruder still often make flat noodles like tagliatelle and pappardelle as well as filled pastas like ravioli in house.
In fact, this approach is a sign of a serious dining spot. “Seeing more restaurants making more dishes from scratch is a great thing,” explains Geiger. “When you see them doing their own simple products like pasta, they’re likely to be taking more care with the other things that are in their establishment.”
While pasta is divine comfort food for many people, seeking out the best of breed can turn the consumption of this Italian staple into a memorable culinary experience. Here’s our guide to the South Bay restaurants offering the best fresh pasta around.
Guests can watch the pasta being prepared at this new Saratoga spot, which might have counter ordering but has first-class preparations of seasonal, creative pasta dishes. The cooks deliver the food themselves, which can be fun. Try the toothy orecchiette with luscious short ribs and broccolini in a creamy, lemony broth, or the tender tagliatelle tossed with cheese and morsels of ocean-flavor uni and crab. Other stars include rib-sticking Berkshire pork and spicy Calabrian peppers with smoked mozzarella on pepper rigatoni and a perfectly simple spaghetti in red sauce that’s anything but in your mouth. The look is clean industrial chic and folks are already swarming into this spot, so expect to wait in line to order. Salads and soups are also available and the portions are small.
14560 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; http://www.pastaarmillino.com
Featuring gorgeous, spacious decor with a soaring ceiling and wonderful courtyard and patio inside the venerable Stanford Barn, Vina Enoteca offers divine Italian dishes and luscious pasta. The spinach tagliatelle’s Bolognese (a measure of a serious kitchen) is a world-class meat ragū, while the rabbit-filled agnolotti with wine, castleventrano olives and sun-dried tomatoes will stop conversation. Not content with ordinary pasta and clams, the chef uses wonderfully sweet Salish blue clams cooked with wine and garlic and tosses them with tender squid ink spaghetti. Large tube pasta called paccheri holds abundant amounts of the accompanying tomato sauce with white anchovies, fennel and spicy, spreadable salami. If it’s possible, the kitchen will change dishes and whip special things up to please guests and there are plenty of other items on the menu that could be a delicious prelude to a pasta meal, like the world’s best carpaccio and charred octopus with favas in a smoky sauce.
700 Welch Rd., Palo Alto; http://www.vinaenoteca.com
This handsome, modern spot urges guests to “pausa” from the daily grind and enjoy first-class Italian cooking from seasonal ingredients, even making its salumi in house. Worth a drive for those in the further reaches of the South Bay, Pausa takes its pasta just as seriously as everything else, with a dedicated dough room for pastas and pizza dough. Try the wide pappardelle noodles laced with duck sugo sprinkled generously with cheese or gorgeously colorful ravioli made from tomato pasta stuffed with buffalo ricotta and peas and draped with Parmigiano fondu, chives and poppy seeds. The cavities in the bright green stinging-nettle rigatoni are perfect for holding onto a hearty ragū with braised pork sausage, or experience the Basilicata region of Southern Italy via sweet Senise chile peppers in hand-rolled casarecce noodles that beautifully wear a rich lamb-neck sugo pumped up with fresh mint.
223 E. 4th Ave., San Mateo; http://www.pausasanmateo.com
A popular relative newcomer on downtown Los Altos’ heretofore sleepy restaurant scene, this attractive, modern dining house has a decidedly upscale Italian/American menu that features house-made pasta (except for the gluten-free options). Particularly popular is tender agnolotti filled with roasted butternut squash, pumpkin seeds and cheese that’s draped with sage butter sauce , chives and shaved grana padano. Or try the cappelletti, which are small tortellini filled with truffled polenta and tossed in a spicy tomato sauce with two sizeable, flavorful meatballs. An unusual offering is mustard-flavored fettucine paired with braised rabbit, while slender linguine is paired with local clams and uni in a light sauce. Meanwhile, plump lamb ravioli are lightened by a simple sauce of lamb jus, shaved carrots and fennel with a toss of Manchego cheese.
400 Main St., Los Altos; http://www.cetrella.com
As befits a swanky Italian restaurant located in a posh Four Seasons, Quattro is a serious player when it comes to its fresh pasta. The seasonal menu always has a fascinating selection of such offerings, with some standouts starting with creste di gallo alla amatriciana, which are short, curved noodles with a ruffled edge that are perfect for holding, in this case, house-cured guanciale (pork cheek) in a lovely sauce made with renowned San Marzano tomatoes. All this is sprinkled with tangy, rich Fiore Sardo cheese, made from sheep’s milk. This same wonderful cheese covers pappardelle made with ancho peppers that’s draped with wild boar ragū containing cocoa to bring out the earthy flavors. Don’t miss the colorful beet bucatini, hollow noodles that here come with rich, pan-seared squab breast, undoubtedly one of the tastiest of birds, with beet emulsion. The restaurant is big, lovely and worth a trip.
2050 University Ave. (Four Seasons Hotel), East Palo Alto; http://www.quattrorestaurant.com
Owner/chef Donato Scotti has been dishing up superior food from his homeland in this area for years, with his namesake restaurant being the most recent locale where he delivers his culinary artistry. The few pasta choices — among many — not using house-made dough rely on the best imported Italian pasta. His most beloved pasta offering is toothy bigoli with dense, satisfying braised oxtail and asparagus. Tasty buckwheat pappardelle wears a flavorful sugo featuring guinea fowl and heaps of cheese. One of many rib-sticking offerings is ravioli encasing veal and sausage in a perfectly executed red sauce. Then there’s square noodles called tonnarelli made with squid ink wrapped up in fresh tomatoes, Calabrian peppers, clams, scallops and calamari with fish roe (bottarga) and basil, which is like a trip to the seashore. This large, good-looking restaurant encourages lingering as well as delivering tasty cuisine.
1041 Middlefield Rd., Redwood City; http://www.donatoenoteca.com
Not all restaurant groups are alike and one of the best, when it comes to food quality, is Bacchus Management, whose stable includes stars like Spruce in San Francisco and Woodside’s Village Pub. So naturally, the group’s take on pizza — as seen in the four Pizza Antica locations in the Bay Area — is excellent. While the wood-oven-baked pies get attention, Pizza Antica offers house-made, quite-fine pasta, too. Beloved gnocchi is a sort-of pasta made with potatoes that can be gluey or, in this case, fluffy and tender, with two tasty sauces, pesto and sun-dried tomato. Squid ink linguine lends its ocean taste to a light, lovely pairing featuring tuna ragū, chile and basil. The thick tubes in a rib-sticking manicotti dish give bite to spinach and chicken with a winey béchamel sauce. Offerings change so hope that late summer brings back the luscious dish called corn mezzalune featuring creamy, corn-filled half moons in a complementary sauce.
334 Santana Row, San Jose; http://www.pizzaantica.com
The petite size of this popular cafe precludes making every pasta in house but those that are like the pappardelle, gnocchi and ravioli are delicious and well priced. The house ravs wrap spinach pasta around mushrooms and cheese, then they’re covered in herb-rich pesto sauce. The gnocchi is memorable, featuring separate beet and spinach gnocchi in a creamy leek sauce topped with threads of prosciutto. Toothy pappardelle is a delicious foil to a flavorful Bolognese, while the other offerings utilize high-quality pasta. There’s al dente linguine tossed with spicy marinara and piled with mussels, clams, shrimp and scallops, or toothy penne with wild boar and wild mushrooms. Guests also like the friendly service, divine pizza and memorable tiramisu.
109 W. Main St., Los Gatos; http://www.centonovelosgatos.com
Doing food the true Italian way is the mantra of this little chain, whose pizza made in a wood-fired oven was certified in Naples for quality of ingredients and execution. Naturally, the pasta is made in house and also adheres to high standards. In fact, the restaurant was named for the “double zero” Italian flour used in top pizzas and pastas. Try the fettucine wrapped around a terrific ragū made from braised wild boar and sprinkled with flavorful, tangy pecorino Sardo cheese, or spinach ravioli filled with wild mushrooms and ricotta in rich fondue truffle sauce. A house favorite is squid ink tagliolini in which the skinny noodles in spicy tomato sauce with roasted garlic are crowned with generous amounts of scallops and clams. A simple, delightful alternative is pasta squares wrapped into little tubes called garganelli that hold onto colorful pieces of broccoli rabe, Italian chiles and generous shavings of pecorino Sardo. Value in terms of price and portions is another bonus.
160 Castro St., Mountain View, and 10088 N. Wolfe Rd., Cupertino; http://www.dzpizzeria.com
Around for several decades, this Italian chain now has about two dozen locations in five states but its long-term success was earned by careful adherence to solid cooking. Il Fornaio has never lost sight of its Italian-ness, featuring regional Italian menus that take visitors across this food-centric country on a regular basis, in addition to its regular offerings. Most of the pasta is made in house and can be ordered in half or full sizes — a great idea — and comes with calorie counts (maybe not such a great idea). A longtime signature pasta features linguine in spicy tomato sauce holding up prawns, scallops, clams and mussels. Wonderfully sweet and toothy are dumplings called cappellacci filled with butternut squash that are tossed with roasted walnuts, brown butter and fried sage leaves. There’s Bolognese with tagliatelle, spaghetti with meatballs in tomato sauce with mushrooms and other classic pastas to please any carb lover.
Locations in San Jose, Santa Clara, Palo Alto and Burlingame; http://www.ilfornaio.com
Killer Fresh Pasta for Cooking at Home
While lingering over beautifully sauced noodles in a local restaurant is a great way to achieve blissful sustenance, there’s another approach that is cheaper and doesn’t involve a check at the end of the meal. Sure, most supermarkets sell “fresh” pasta as well as the dried stuff but try these other sources if you’re picky about your carbs.
Saporito Pasta – The odds are high that some of the wonderful pasta you consumed in a local restaurant actually came from this Redwood City wholesale specialist, whose sizeable array of terrific noodles and filled pastas is the secret source for restaurants like Pezzalla’s Villa Napoli in Sunnyvale, Carpaccio and Trellis in Menlo Park, Cafe Pro Bono and Local Union 271 in Palo Alto and many others, not to mention the cafes at Google, Facebook and more. But you can buy it yourself at Sigona’s in Redwood City and Palo Alto, Milk Pail in Mountain View and Draeger’s markets.
Pasta Pasta – Like the ultimate candy store for pasta lovers, this wonderful spot produces all kinds of noodles, from squid ink linguine and spinach fettucine as well as all sizes and shapes of pasta. Then there are the dozen-plus ravioli, filled with everything from sweet peas and butternut squash to mushroom medley and roasted garlic with chevre. The many sauces, too, are outstanding, making a divine meal at home as easy as boiling water. 125 E. 4th Ave., San Mateo; http://www.pastapastaco.com
Bertucelli’s La Villa – A longtime institution in Willow Glen, this funky little Italian deli also happens to make a few excellent fresh ravioli flavors, which are sold fresh and fresh-frozen, with little difference apparent. The list includes cheese, meat, chicken, feta and lobster, with these irresistible little pillows stuffed with goodness. The lobster ravs, in particular, are not to be missed. And while there, be sure to order a meatball sub or take home a slice or two of the unbelievable crème brūlée cheesecake. 1319 Lincoln Ave., San Jose; http://www.wglavilla.com
Antipastos by DeRose – Another family-run Italian deli in San Jose, this little spot sells boxes filled with their homemade ravs, which come in flavors that include meat, vegetarian, cheese and chicken. The price is definitely right for these plumb pillows, which fans insist should be paired with the house’s tomato basil cream sauce. 3454 McKee Rd., San Jose; http://www.antipastosdeli.com
Florentine Trattoria – A popular spot for down-home Italian food, this busy restaurant also offers a few takeout pasta and sauce items for home cooks. The options, sold by the pound, include ravioli, tortellini and gnocchi along with eight different house-made sauces sold by the pint. Also, the restaurant has a massive pasta list for those who want their food already cooked and ready for reheating in the microwave. 14510 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; http://www.florentinetrattoria.com