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Home Away From Rome

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 1999

Richman Review

Turning Tables
Todayís coffeehouses contribute more than caffeine to the scene. They have become gathering places, public living rooms with sofas, armchairs and reading lamps. They also play up to our new and supposedly healthful eating style: grainy muffins, bagels and fresh fruit in the mornings, sandwiches that cater to vegetarians for lunch or dinner. Thatís why it was a surprise to hear one staffer at Tryst, on 18th Street in Adams-Morgan, describe whatís special about that year-old coffeehouse: "We also start serving alcohol at 10 a.m."
– P.C.R.
Three women tried the locked door of Pasta Mia, then peered in the windows. In the rear sat four people, their table filled with plates of pasta and a bottle of wine. They looked so relaxed that the women were reluctant to disturb them. Still, it was after 6 p.m., and Pasta Mia was supposed to be open.

"What have you liked here before?" one woman asked another, strangers making conversation to pass the time.

"The bread! The bread is wonderful!"

"What about the pastas? Which ones do you recommend?"

"I canít remember what I ate, it was just all good."

Thatís the kind of restaurant Pasta Mia is: a small pasta place where even if no one dish stands out, you leave with a sense of having been well fed – and probably with a bag of leftovers.

At last one of the women knocked tentatively, and the staff members at the rear table noticed they had visitors. One appeared at the door and turned the Closed sign to Open. He waved away the womenís apologies for having interrupted his dinner, and welcomed them heartily.

"Seat yourselves."

And they did, at small tables with red-checked cloths and bottles of olive oil – the í90s substitute for the old-time candle in a raffia-wrapped wine bottle. Pasta Mia is a lighter, fresher update, but itís a direct descendant of the red-sauce Italian restaurants where Americans learned to love spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, pizza and garlic bread. Not that Pasta Mia serves a single one of those.

The entrees are all pasta: linguine, fusilli, ravioli, penne, farfalle, capellini, tortellini, gnocchi and – the lone in-house product, which you can see hanging like clean laundry in the kitchen window – fettuccine, in three colors. The sauces are as simple as possible: Tomato. Cream. Cream with mushrooms. Cream with tomato. Tomato with red pepper. Red pepper and broccoli with garlic. Twenty-nine pasta dishes in all. Only nine of them have meat sauce (bolognese, ragu, carbonara, sausage or amatrice), and just three of them have seafood (clams, tuna or shrimp with tomato). The rest are vegetarian.

By the time the women had ordered wine, from a list where a mere $14 will bring a bottle of nice Tocai or Orvieto, they were feeling particularly fortunate. The place was filling up fast. There would be a line by the time their pastas arrived. There always is.

The remarkable thing is that nobody seems to mind waiting here. Coats get juggled and stuffed into corners; thereís no proper place to put them. The waiters – two or three at the most – squeeze through the crowd to deliver the big, deep plates of steaming pasta two at a time. Everyone here seems to know and accept the rules:

The food comes when it comes. Donít expect the whole table to be fed at exactly the same time.

No substitutions. No, you canít have fettuccine with pesto. That comes on the gnocchi. All pasta is served with cheese, even the seafood. Sometimes you get a lot, sometimes just a sprinkle. Itís the luck of the draw.

No carryout. You can take home your leftovers, but not a whole order of pasta.

The minimum food charge per person is $6.95. The maximum price for any pasta is $9.95. Which should help explain why people wait in line for this fresh and personable cooking.

The reason for all these rules is not just that high volume is necessary for such bargain-priced, made-to-order cooking. If you walk past the kitchen, youíll see that itís a one-man show. One man juggling dozens of pans at breakneck speed. I wouldnít want to be the waiter to break his concentration with a plea for eggplant on the linguine instead of the fusilli.

The art to enjoying Pasta Mia is to bring a good companion or three. Share a plate of sheer prosciutto topped with a whole round of soft mozzarella, cut into slices, and savor how the salty ham plays against the unsalted cheese. Try the mozzarella with fragrant roasted red and yellow peppers. Or the roasted peppers with a whole school of tiny, pale gray alici – those wonderfully briny Italian anchovies. The Caesar salad shows no hint of egg, but itís got plenty of anchovy and crisp croutons. And white beans come with fresh basil and remarkably flavorful grilled shrimp. All the beginnings are light, cool appetite-awakeners. And the craggy, crusty house-made bread, unsalted in the Italian style, is just right for swiping the plates clean of olive oil or vinaigrette.

The pasta sauces are far from the old-fashioned red sauce boiled down to a paste that will hold a spoon upright. These sauces are light and aromatic, with a hint of onion and fresh herb. If thereís garlic, itís cooked to a soft, sweet state. Spicy red sauces have an attention-getting dose of red pepper, and the pesto is gutsy, but most of the sauces are gentle. They grow on you, unfold as you make your way through the big bowlful. My most lingering affection is for the green fettuccine with tomato-tinted cream sauce and fat slices of firm white mushroom. The acidity of the tomato cuts the richness, unlike the carbonara, which is richness untamed. The fusilli with broccoli is austere – just florets with oil, garlic and red pepper. It needs its cheese to knit the flavors. The fusilli with eggplant would be wonderful if the eggplant werenít diced so finely, but itís close enough.

Iíve never seen anybody but me order dessert here, and I can understand why. The choice is pedestrian chocolate-coated ice cream – tartufo – or a defrosted so-called tiramisu that looks and tastes like a party favor. The espresso is definitely more authentic.

Look around. The brick walls are decorated with nothing more than food posters. The chairs are meant for short stays. The tables are tight enough that your neighbor could drip red sauce on your tie – if you were clueless enough to wear one here. Yet tomorrow, when youíre scraping up the last bits of your leftover ravioli alla panna, youíll probably be planning to try it with tomato sauce next time, and wondering whether you should have your roasted peppers with anchovies again or with mozzarella.

Pasta Mia – 1790 Columbia Rd. NW. 202/328-9114. Open: for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. V, MC. No reservations. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: appetizers $3.50 to $7.95, entrees $6.95 to $9.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $17 to $30 per person.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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