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Pasta, Everyone?

Christopher Gardner

Affordable Answer: Why 'Pasta?' Perhaps the punctuation in the name questions the need for expensive noodles.

House-made pastas plus wallet-friendly prices equals popularity

By Andrew X. Pham

YOU, ME and Jackson. That used to be the appropriate combo for an inexpensive dinner date. These days, it seems necessary to tuck an extra Lincoln or two into the wallet. Still, finding a hip spot to wine and dine on a budget is no major task.

One of the most affluent towns in the Bay Area, Palo Alto is also the hot destination for bargain diners. Downtown boasts row upon row of smart eateries tucked among swanky restaurants. The latest of these, Pasta?, features fresh, house-made pastas. And where else could it possibly be except smack in the middle of University Avenue?

Brushed and sponged in earthy Tuscany tones, with maybe 20 tables under contempo spot lighting, Pasta? looks more expensive than it actually is. The wallet-friendly menu sets a good example for many an overpriced restaurant. Most entrées cost from $4.75 to $6.50, appetizers $3.25 to $5, half-orders of salads $2.95 to $3.75. Make no mistake, despite its handsome demeanor, Pasta? doesn't claim to be a high-end restaurant. It dishes up pasta as simply and quickly as a Chinese noodlehouse, albeit with a touch more class. There are neither linens nor candlelight, and silverware and paper napkins are stocked in glass holders on each table.

The short but decently priced selection of wines makes for good dining. Among the reds available by the glass is a good Haywood Cabernet ($4.50) from Sonoma. The selected Italian reds are sharp, without much character, but no matter: The glasses here are tumblers of respectable volume.

At these prices, we decided to see if we could put away as much food as The Three Tenors, kicking off with full orders of insalata di spinaci ($5.95), insalata alla Cesare ($4.50), sautéed black mussels ($5) and scallops with asparagus ($4.95). Both salads were fresh and positively huge--great deals.

As for the mussels, while the powerful garlic tomato sauce was good for sopping with ciabatta, the shellfish were far too sandy to be taken seriously. The mini-marshmallow-sized Chinese scallops appeared on a fan of grilled baby asparagus, accented with an orange zest sauce. Nice, but we would have traded these bits for a pair of fat diver scallops.

Two of our favorites were the spaghetti tarantina ($6.50) and the fettuccine with salmon ($6.75). The spaghetti arrived glossy with olive oil and topped with a garlicky tomato sauce, the whole mound nearly covered with calamari and black mussels. Smothered in a pink cream sauce and decorated with jade-green peas, the fettuccine was a hearty meal with a generous portion of flaked salmon, heightened with dill. Our fusilli con salsiccie ($5.50) made a simple showing with just sausage in a moderately spicy tomato sauce. The corkscrew carbo, a dry pasta, lacked liveliness compared with the fresh pastas available.

The gnocchi didn't impress us, coming across as too pasty. The other house-made pastas, fettuccine, taglierini and ravioli, lived up to expectation, so we recommend sticking with these. Besides, the staff is very accommodating. On another visit, they switched pasta upon request without charging us extra: fettuccine for spaghetti, and taglierini for penne. Nice folks.

Now every bargain has its drawback. For Pasta? it's the place's popularity. Lunch and dinner during the rush hours can be a very tight squeeze. Dinner on the weekend has been known to be positively insane, with the wait for a table drawn out as long as 45 minutes. (That's a masochistically long time to be milling around on the sidewalk while everyone else is wolfing down aromatic food.) But the restaurant is open till midnight on Friday and Saturday--we suggest dining either very early or very late.

Good cups of coffee and a rum-rich tiramisu ($3.50) gave us enough time to pause and smile at each other before vacating a seat for some of the patrons waiting in line outside.

This restaurant is obviously a hit. With a little luck, perhaps some other little South Bay town will get a Pasta? infusion. Frankly, at these prices and quality, we hope Pasta? goes national.

Cuisine: Italian
Ambiance: Swift, noisy and casual
Menu: $4-$8
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11:30am-11pm; Fri.-Sat. 11:30am-midnight; Sun. 11:30am-10pm
Address: 326 University Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/328-4585

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From the Dec. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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