"What real chefs can do with red-sauce Italian."
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One could be forgiven for expecting very little from Basta Pasta.
It sits on a traffic-heavy Cambridge street lined with bodegas and split-level homes. No waiters--just a walk-up counter whose chalkboard menu reads like the Olive Garden's. There's a refrigerator stocked with Pepsi and Gatorade; a flat-screen TV hangs overhead. The name's a little corny. And the owners aren't even Italian.
But with one bite of homemade fusilli, none of this could matter less.
MIT grad students, the Cambridge fire department, and Central Square denizens have been holding out on the rest of us--Basta Pasta is no ordinary red-sauce takeout. Order well, and the dishes handed over the counter will be phenomenal. Better than most plates served in the North End; on par with stuffier restaurants that serve one-third the food at twice the price.
Italian-American staples will always win over a certain crowd. With its extensive menu and huge portions, Basta Pasta might succeed even if its food weren't that good. But with handmade pastas, well-sourced ingredients, and culinary skill apparent in every bite, it becomes a serious eater's destination.
Before opening Basta Pasta in 2005, Albanian brothers Reno and Altin Hoxhallari had already earned their culinary credentials. Reno, in particular, worked in Milan before putting in time at Michael Schlow's Via Matta and other Boston area restaurants. Their current digs may lack that gloss and grandeur, but the food they put out is barely a notch down.
Crispy arancini ($5.25) arrive stacked in a precarious pyramid, anchored by a bright, garlic-laden tomato sauce. Beautifully browned and not greasy in the slightest, each piping hot ball unleashes a molten core of Fontina cheese, rather than the usual mozzarella.
Eggplant parm bedevils many less talented chefs, but the baked stuffed eggplant ($9.95) tasted as fresh as the dish ever could--thin slices that kept the flavor of eggplant, not oil, cradling spinach, just-melted mozzarella, and roasted red pepper.
Any dinner order should include the hand-shaped fusilli, served here in Bolognese sauce ($10.95; fusilli $1.95 extra, and worth every penny). Each little spiral had a tender bite that dried or otherwise pre-made noodles could not replicate. Basta's Bolognese was a bit of a concession to the American palate, more a tomato-based sauce than a fatty, pork-laden ragú. But with enormous hunks of sweet tomato and juicy crumbles of beef cradled in each bite, it was hard to find fault.
Imperfectly cooked risotto can easily become a soulless, gluey mass, but Basta's white risotto ($10.95) retains a sharp bite, with lemon thyme and the trace of good olive oil cutting through the starch. On top curl petals of prosciutto that dissolve on one's tongue, and clumps of bright, almost floral goat cheese that gently soften in the dish's heat.
And though quantity and quality tend to be inversely correlated, the portions at Basta Pasta defy any normal appetite. Not even an Italian grandmother would dish up plates this generous. My dining companion, a voracious eater who'd worked out and skipped lunch, could barely make it through a single plate. Two lighter eaters could easily split a single entrée and both end up with leftovers. We watched a family of five share one salad and one entree, and leave food behind. Clearly, the management has figured this out; a pile of takeout trays waits by the cash register. And properly al dente on the first round, all three pastas bounced right back to life the next day.
Basta Pasta isn't breaking any new culinary ground. It simply shows what decent chefs can do with red-sauce Italian--even in a no-frills roadside storefront. Sure, they could hire waiters, laminate a few menus, and charge twice as much. But they're looking to provide value and good eating, and they do so admirably.
Altin reported that a second shop, this one with liquor license and proper seating, will open in North Quincy as early as September. This happy customer wholeheartedly endorses their expansion. If more nondescript Italian joints served food as incredible as Basta Pasta, the world would be a far better place.