Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
You need not go further than the canestri cacio e pepe. You will. But you needn’t.
Pastaria, which opened in downtown Clayton this past autumn, instantly became a local dining sensation, another of chef-owner Gerard Craft’s successes. The interior sports the factory-floor dimensions currently popular in the restaurant trade. It’s airy—there’s sufficient room overhead for any passing dirigibles, empty space that combines with the concrete floor (and the inevitable crowds, including children) to generate lots of noise. But it’s attractive, with an entire wall covered with photos of Italy and its food, another loaded with autographed wooden pizza peels.
Tables are wooden, unclothed, easily pushed together to accommodate families, small enough to be intimate for two. The kitchen’s entirely visible. A small corner is devoted to pasta manufacture; beside it is a beguiling gelato counter. The bar’s diminutive; given the throngs waiting for a table, you’re unlikely to ever get a seat at it.
The menu is as engaging as it is short. Of the two appetizers offered, one worked beautifully, the other less so. Crispy risotto balls (a.k.a. arancini) are delightful, six ping-pong spheres of risotto rice deep-fried to a crunchy golden. Be careful: They’re molten inside. Split them, and drizzle on the accompanying herbed aioli or the marinara sauce. Bruschetta, the other starter, is a large slice of rough country bread, not crispy enough, scattered with limp roasted radishes.
A salad of chopped romaine is nicely balanced, tossed with chickpeas, red onion, bacon nibbles, and a generous sprinkle of Maytag blue cheese. The kale salad’s even better; curls of dark green are dressed in a flurry of flaked pecorino, toasted bread crumbs, and a restrained anchovy dressing with just enough garlic. If you’re going for lunch, opt for the kale salad and a pasta dish.
Speaking of pasta, as the restaurant’s name suggests, it’s the star here. There are only three main nonpasta dishes: a roasted chicken, braised beef and carrots with lemon and parsley, and salmon. We sampled the fish, a thick flank of it, the skin charred to a salty-sweet crust, with capers and slivers of roasted lemon. Alongside are nubbins of roasted cauliflower and smashed and sautéed fingerling potatoes; the side is tender, starchy, delectable. The kitchen’s attention to these potatoes—a lovely departure from the usual tuber treatment locally—and those lemon slices roasted with the fish make for an accompanying nibble that might seem trite, but actually enhances the salmon wonderfully, while demonstrating Craft’s talents. These little things add up.
Back to those pastas: They are altogether superior, house-made, squeezed out where you can watch the process. Tiny seashells of conchigliette rest on mesh racks, with nests of mounded pappardelle, guitar-string chitarra threads… No St. Louis Italian eatery has attempted fresh pasta on this order or of this variety.
The chitarra comes with tomatoes, garlic, and basil—or even more wonderfully simple, in a glossy sauce of olive oil, garlic, and flaked chilies. An unusual version of lasagna layers carrots and other vegetables between pasta sheets, slathered with a creamy béchamel sauce. Looking like DNA twists, strozzapreti, or “priest stranglers,” are swirled in a Bolognese sauce that’s nearly perfect, the sweetness balanced against a rich meatiness.
Sweet apples, smoked pork, and mascarpone are a nice complement to a tangle of pappardelle. Or you can—you must—try the “cheese and pepper” canestri cacio e pepe. The canestri are big ones, 16 millimeter jobs, that look like baskets, dressed with nothing more than pecorino, Grana Padano, and cracked pepper. Elegantly simple, it is undoubtedly the best dish here.
A pizza Margherita is creditable and correct. The crust has that rough, irregularly bubbled “bead” that comes from a superior dough, and the scorched bottom imparts so much flavor. Some other pizzas are tempting, like a four-cheese or a marinara; others, like one with Brussels sprouts, lardo, and lemon, are apparently a sort of culinary joke—we hope. (Pastaria’s pies were recently listed among Esquire’s “most life-changing pizzas,” an unfair burden to lay on a place this new. They’re quite good. Life-changing, they ain’t.)
Desserts? We did mention that gelato bar, right? There are flavors like cassia/blueberry swirl, or Aztec chocolate, or salted caramel. If you don’t like gelato, then get some medical help—but meanwhile, there are other offerings. They had us at cannoli, of course. Then our waitress noted it was stuffed with pastry cream instead of ricotta, as the Lord intended. So we opted for a magnificently fudgy chocolate tart with a hefty glob of crème fraîche and toasted hazelnuts.
The wine list is very good, but do consider a house-made limoncello and a Negroni cocktail aged in bourbon barrels at sister spot Taste.
Service is friendly and competent, among the best in St. Louis. One server handled a table of massively annoying diners with an ER’s worth of allergies and idiotic requests with superb cool. And you’ll note that we mentioned children contributing to the noise level here. It’s wonderful. Pastaria is informal enough to make them feel welcome, with a kitchen and chef talented enough to introduce them to the joys of good dining. There are, we’re betting, some future chefs and some future connoisseurs getting their first taste of civilized fare at Pastaria.
The only significant flaw is Pastaria’s no-reservations policy. The reasons for refusing reservations are numerous and good; too many people show up late or not at all. Even so, it is a clear proposition that the restaurant’s time is more important than yours, and those waiting are confined to standing in the doorway or sitting on a few uncomfortable chairs or—if you win the lottery—at the bar. Take our name; take care of us. The staff seems to recognize this, mercifully visiting those waiting with an offer to take drink orders. Suggestion: When they do, ask if they’ll just bring some canestri cacio e pepe. It’ll make the wait so much nicer.
Lunch and dinner daily
Average Main Course: $16
Reservations: Like our offer to autograph one of those pizza paddles, they’re not accepted.
Dress: You’ll be fine in jeans—but they should be your best jeans.
Chef: Adam Altnether