January 10-16, 2007

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pasta primavera

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Pasta Perfect: The Pastaria's pasta primavera epitomizes their fresh appeal.

All Pasta, No Marketing

Simple, fresh and light, Los Gatos' Pastaria & Market is focused on great Italian dishes

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

LOS GATOS isn't hurting for high-end restaurants, but even the well-heeled can't eat at Manresa every night. When Los Gatans want to kick back, relax and have an unfussy but still raveworthy dinner at a cozy neighborhood eatery, they flock to the Pastaria & Market. With no website, a menu that steers clear of trendy ingredients like truffle oil, and décor comprised of framed posters and painted trellises, Pastaria offers reasonably priced comfort food in an unpretentious but still lively atmosphere. And it's full nearly every night.

Those who enter the dinner-only restaurant for the first time notice two things: it's tiny, and there's no market. So why the name? According to chef Paul Novi, who opened the joint with his wife, Donna, in 1995, the Pastaria began as an Italian grocery with a deli case and fresh sauces and pastas to go. Within two years, customers were clamoring for tables. The Novis relented and added two to the shop. Two more followed, then two more, and now the roughly 10-table restaurant concentrates fully on its loyal, dine-in clientele.

"We became a restaurant because of our customers," says Novi, who cooks on-site six nights a week.

Those in the know still can, and do, call ahead and order fresh sauces (meat, marinara, pesto, Alfredo) and house-made "string" pasta (angel hair, linguini, tagliatelle, fettuccini) to go. Takeout accounts for 25 percent to 30 percent of the restaurant's business.

Both second-generation Italians, the Novis designed a menu of family-inspired dishes from both the north and south of the boot. Paul's family hails from Venice and Donna's from Calabria, and both of their grandfathers were chefs. The menu celebrates Italian standbys such as lasagna, chicken parmigiana and fettuccini Alfredo along with a smattering of more inventive dishes like crab cannelloni and butternut squash agnolotti.

The impressive but affordable wine list veers toward local vineyards and Italian vintages. "We try to find sleepers that aren't too expensive," says Novi. In fact, the father of one of the restaurant's employees makes Alessia, a fruity red blend I enjoyed on one visit.

Though Pastaria's raison d'être is pasta, don't make the mistake of skipping appetizers, particularly the warm artichoke dip ($5.95) and the melted brie with roasted garlic ($6.95). Granted, artichoke dip generally screams the Olive Garden and sends me running, but this version succeeds nicely: a small cast-iron pan holds the bubbly dip, crusted over with an ample coating of broiled cheese and served with hot ciabatta. The addictive bread arrives half-baked from Dolce Firenze, a Seaside-based Italian bakery, and Pastaria's choice to finish baking it on-site throughout the evening means your basket is regularly replenished with hot, fresh loaves.

Unfortunately, even good bread couldn't save the wan antipasto platter (small $6.95, large $8.95). Roasted red peppers, green olives, marinated artichokes, salami and provolone drowned helplessly in a pool of marinade and appeared carelessly thrown together.

Salads are on the basic side, but still fresh and appealing. And then there's the pasta. I've found that some midpriced, casual Italian eateries tend to overdo it with the sauce. Pastaria doesn't. As a result, even dishes that might normally seem heavy elsewhere, like a classic meat lasagna ($12.95) layered with Italian sausage and freshly made pasta sheets, are well balanced and flavorful without making you groan with their heft.

Pink vodka mostaccioli ($10.95) is creamy, but thankfully not overly rich, dotted with tangy sun-dried tomatoes and buttery pine nuts. Pesto lovers will enjoy the walnut pesto linguini ($9.95) with its bright green hue and tender noodles. If you're hankering for seafood, ask for the special penne del mare ($15.95) with shrimp, scallops and chunks of moist, tender cod.

Service was extremely warm, knowledgeable and friendly when I dined one evening with three companions. When I dined with a larger group of six friends on another night, we were stuffed like ravioli into a corner, and servers overlooked us in favor of the smaller tables. Lesson learned: don't take a big group to such a small restaurant.

Because portion sizes are reasonable (you'll neither go home hungry nor leave with leftovers), you'll have room for the two standout desserts. Profiteroles ($4.95) arrived in a charming, old-fashioned sundae glass. The shockingly fresh cream puffs burst when I bit into them and filled my mouth with warm, sweet custard. Tiramisu ($4.95) was airy and creamy, with a lovely mascarpone filling.

Don't expect espresso or other highbrow indulgences to finish your meal here because you won't find them. Pastaria doesn't pretend to be more than what it is. With food this good and understated, it doesn't have to.

The Pastaria & Market

Address: 49 E. Main St., Los Gatos.

Phone: 408.399.3477.

Hours: 5-9:30pm Mon-Thu, 5-10pm Fri-Sat and 5-9pm Sun.

Cuisine: Italian.

Price Range: entrees $9-$16.

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