Feasts fit for the frugal foodie at Pasta Vita

When people say "it's either feast or famine," they don't tend to mean it literally - unless, of course, it's me using the old adage to describe the state of my house's larder.

With just two of us in the house, my husband and I are pretty great at eating ourselves down to breadcrumbs and ketchup and then going on a giant shopping trip, ideally to Trader Joe's.

Of course, we also tend to hate going on the giant shopping trip, and we don't live terribly close to a Trader Joe's, so sometimes it's all about expediency. Indeed, there was much rejoicing at the homestead when I recently rescued us from impending starvation with a huge haul from Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook. (Ironically, we discovered a pack of PV's frozen ravioli after we'd eaten ourselves silly.) I'd stocked us up in about three days of (shared) meals and fulfilled my duties for a potluck party by selecting a dozen frozen hors d'oeuvres - raspberry brie tartlets - from Pasta Vita's impressive selection.

I realize I can't say something intriguing like "raspberry brie tartlets" and leave foodies hanging, so we'll start there. When you take small pastry shells and fill them with brie, carmelized onion, raspberry puree and bacon, the result is a wonderful tangy, savory, and smooth sensation. The pastry adds delightful texture, and the onion lends a pleasant pungent edge to the mixture within. Let's just say the tartlets were a huge hit at the party.

Now, earlier, when I said I'd stocked "us" up in three days of meals, I have to confess one of them was so spectacular, it didn't live long enough to become leftovers for my husband and became a day-long meal for one. I'd picked up the Summer Pasta Verde, thinking I'd have a bit for lunch at work and save the rest for my fellow taster. While yes, I did have a bit for lunch, it was so delicious, I insisted my colleague should try it to ensure I wasn't overreacting to the absolute perfection of the dish. She concurred.

Summer Pasta Verde is thin, cold spaghetti mixed with plum tomatoes, spinach, garlic, basil, olive oil, lemon and Pecorino Romano. The lemon is the secret killer ingredient, in that it turns up the volume on all the herbs and offers an overall brightness to such a pungent mix. The spaghetti ensures lots of cheese, herbs, and spinach entangled in each wonderful, wonderful bite. The spinach adds a great dull crunch and, with the lemon juice, keeps the salad from becoming a (delicious) garlic bomb (not that there's anything wrong with that, but not everyone loves to be greeted with another person's garlic after-glow).

I noshed on the salad all day, prolonging my flavorful fiesta.

I redeemed myself with the husband by sharing the rest of the Pasta Vita haul with him. It was particularly wise to have started with the Tuscan Beef Stew with Coconut Rice Pudding for dessert - both of which earned raves (and I have limited use for shaved coconut).

The beef stew rudiments - potatoes, carrots, tender beef, celery and peas - come in a more broth-y base, rather than a thicker traditional stew - likely due to the wise choice of red wine as a main ingredient. The nuances of the wine add depth to an otherwise simple dish that would be ruined by too much salt. The wine gets it done, with a nice boost from the flavorful beef. This is hands down the best beef stew I've ever eaten (please don't tell my mother) and could likely cure just about anything that ails a (non-vegetarian) person.

As for the Coconut Rice Pudding, the first mark in its favor was its absence of raisins. Second, it was milkier than other rice puddings I've sampled, and the resulting silkiness was a pleasant change. But the subtle sweetness of coconut milk adds a grownup richness to this common comfort food and makes for a very nice end to a hearty meal. Not too heavy, not too sweet-shaved coconut on top forgiven.

Between meals and chores, we noshed on Pasta Vita's mango salsa. Mango salsa is one of my favorite things to eat, and PV's version will return to my household again - possibly due to the PV's intriguing addition of vegetable broth, which I've never encountered in a mango salsa but which likely prevented the salsa from being too sweet and tangy and would seemingly set it up as a great topping for meat dishes.

Almost.

After such success with the salsa (served with Trader Joe's organic corn chips; read: organic Fritos, pretty much), we were a little disappointed with the last meal in the fridge: Coconut Chicken with Fresh Mango Salsa. Sounds fabulous, right? While this dish wasn't at all bad, it also wasn't at all impressive like the others. The coconut-crusted chicken fell pretty flat flavor-wise, and the salsa lost a lot of flavor in the reheating (the package calls for 30 to 40 minutes in the oven on 350). Somehow the greens (spinach, I think) upon which the chicken sat fared well in the reheating, but it wasn't enough to make this a wow-worthy meal.

Still, three days of great eats for well south of $100? Made with fresh whole foods from an independent small business? All of that easily makes up for any disappointments.

Pasta Vita

225 Elm St., Old Saybrook
(860) 395-1452
www.pastavita.com

Cuisine: Gourmet food to go, heavily stocked in Italian fare. Check the website for weekly specials.

Atmosphere: Busy, wellstocked, mini-marketplace and kitchen.

Prices: Moderate. Dinners
average around $9.95, with smaller items like mango salsa ringing in at $6.95. Frozen hors d'oeuvres average around $15.

Service: Quick ring-outs,
cheery staff.

Credit Cards: All major.

Hours: Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturday 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Handicapped access: No stairs on the way in, and the door is wide. If the shop is busy, navigating
could prove a little tricky. Still, ample space if fellow customers are polite.

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