Lovers of food and film are generally fans of Big Night, the 1996 film in which Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci play Italian-American brothers who run a sad, little restaurant. Shalhoub plays Primo, a master chef who accuses a more successful restaurant of "rape of cuisine!" Tucci's Secondo appreciates his older sibling's artistry, but wants to make a buck. They put on an unimaginable feast in a last-ditch effort to draw customers and save the restaurant.
Basta Pasta owner Greg Gibbardo says Big Night was a big influence on his decision to start his own restaurant. Indeed, Gibbardo offers a "Big Night" menu a few times a month. I think it would be more accurate to say Gibbardo was inspired than influenced by the movie, though.
Basta Pasta is unique locally in serving mostly its own, homemade pasta. Other restaurants serve local pastas, or stuff a local pasta for ravioli, but here the spaghetti, linguini, spinach linguini, and penne rigata are all made fresh, three times per week. The difference with fresh is enormous, and won't be to everyone's liking. Fresh pasta has more texture and richer flavor than dried. Rather than being filler for a dominant sauce, the pasta itself is the main attraction.
Gibbardo knows this, and his dishes stay simple to keep the spotlight on the pasta. His original concept was a Chinese restaurant serving Italian food, and you can see a comparison between the fresh fare at Basta Pasta and that of noodle shops like Ming's and K.C. Tea & Noodle.
As chichi as fresh pasta might seem, Basta Pasta is actually a simple, damned inexpensive restaurant. A generous portion of thick spaghetti is $5.95 at lunch or $6.95 at dinner with a salad (add a buck for a baked meatball or sausage from Pernie's). Gibbardo's tomato and basil marinara sauce is slightly chunky and half way to sweet (I don't like sauces that are too sweet and do like this). Try to spend money and you're pretty much out of luck; the menu tops out at $12.95 for linguini with salmon and asparagus, delicious and simple with a lemon-orange butter. And that's including salad and bread.
For starters you can go with one of several salads. The Mediterranean dolce has field greens, a decent dressing, and walnuts and dried cranberries ($3.95/$6.95). The mandarin oranges and canned pineapple made it a bit sweet for my taste. There are also occasional appetizer specials. I loved baby artichokes with melted butter (not first-date fare). Focaccia bruschetta was fine if unspectacular.
At lunch, no pasta dish is more than $7.95 (Baker Street bread is gratis). There are also several salads and grilled panini sandwiches. The panini are cooked on Gibbardo's "Georgio Formani," and come with a side of marinara sauce. My group tried grilled eggplant and mozzarella, as well as portabello with spinach and provolone ($6.95 each). The sandwiches were generous, with nice texture, but did need the sauce for zip.
Again, Basta Pasta isn't fancy. Bread comes with Country Crock rather than butter, and pre-grated cheese sits on the tables. Oh, and I wish the gnocchi were homemade (to match that lovely lemon-orange butter). But these are hollow complaints at these prices.
The atmosphere is simple, but it's not a dive. Gibbardo's own wood-burnings hang on the walls, and it's a comfortable place to hang. Meals don't come too quickly, but Gibbardo says he makes sure to get kids some food fast. I'll try it with my kids soon. His waitress is an ace. Basta Pasta has no liquor license, but encourages you to bring your wine.
And then there are the Big Nights. Not a complete re-creation of the absurdities in the film, it is a seven-course meal for just $30. The baked, layered timbale (Primo calls it a "timpano," but Gibbardo uses "timbale") is right out of the film. Your next opportunities are June 18 and a Hawaiian-themed night on July 9.
Gibbardo has Big Plans for the future, saying he'll "turn this into Toronto," with strolling waiters, more specials, and fancier flourishes. But he's started with a clear concept and it's a great value as it stands. If you know and love fresh pasta, here it is. And if you don't, you should at least find out the difference for yourself.
Basta Pasta, 741 Monroe Avenue, 442-4599. Hours: Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Monday through Saturday 4:30-9 p.m.
Signs of summer! Custard & Candy on Routes 5 and 20 in Bloomfield has become Shark's Custard & Candy. The new owners purchased the recipes and will continue the tradition of making their own ice cream (and offering huge servings). They have also expanded hours, and plan to remain open later in the fall than the previous owner.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Check www.SavorLife.com for details on Michael's broadcast schedule on WYSL 1040 AM.