On a recent Saturday night, after a week of momentous firsts for our family (Emily’s prom! Andy was an extra in the new Wes Anderson film! Our house was robbed!), we needed to wrap ourselves up in a warm, Nonna hug.
Of course, we don’t have a Nonna. Nor do we have a drop of Italian blood in our veins. But there are still days when comfort food equals pasta.
So it was fortuitous that we were planning to dine at Sal’s Pizza and Pasta in Old Saybrook.
We arrived to find a place that looked like its name – a noisy, bustling dining room, smelling of garlic and fresh-baked Italian bread.
So far, so good.
The menu includes a host of traditional and specialty pizzas, along with Italian comfort foods – lasagna, manicotti, baked ziti, cheese ravioli and the like.
As we waited for our waitress to appear, we studied the menu.
Emily gravitated to the lasagna – something I rarely make at home because
A) my full-size oven died in 2006, and I never bothered to replace it; and
B) Andy – now 13 — hasn’t eaten dairy products since he was 10 months old and turned blue eating yogurt. He eventually outgrew the killer dairy allergy. He still can’t stand the taste or texture of cheese.
“You’d like the manicotti,” I said to Emily. “It’s tubes of pasta with cheese in the middle, and tomato sauce and mozzarella baked on top.”
“How is that different from lasagna, really?” she asked.
“Lasagna has meat, and the manicotti is tubular, not flat – otherwise, it’s pretty much the same thing,” I said.
Like me, she has never met a cheese or pasta she didn’t like. She decided to try it.
“This whole menu is pasta with cheese,” said Andy. “Can I have a pizza?”
Given his aversion to cheese, his pizzas are sauce-only.
“We are reviewing this restaurant,” I said. “I can’t write about a sauce-only pizza they made especially for you.”
He scowls – he is still grumpy from spending eleven hours on a movie set, being doused with a sprinkler — the film world’s stand-in for rain.
“Fettuccine with bacon and peas in a cream sauce? You liked that when I made it at home,” I said.
“At least twice,” I said. “I used potato gnocchi instead of fettuccine, and soy milk for the cream.”
“I don’t remember that at all.”
He points to the first specialty pizza on the menu — plain sauce with Parmesan and garlic.
Not only do they make sauce-only pizza, he tells me – it’s their specialty.
I was about to give in, when he decides to mix it up. He orders ziti with meatballs, since I rarely make meatballs at home. (This sounds like I never cook. I do. But after 11 years of single motherhood, my desire to be Julia Child ran off to France with someone else.)
I went with the aforementioned fettuccine, confident they would never use soy milk in their cream sauce.
For a first course, we were given a loaf of warm Italian bread and tossed green salads with balsamic vinaigrette.
That is often dinner at home.
Already close to full, our main courses arrived. Each plate contained at least a pound of pasta.
The meatballs topping off Andy’s ziti were the size of baseballs, a meld of beef and sausage. The red sauce was pleasantly acidic, with a strong note of garlic.
Emily’s manicotti was oozing velvety ricotta from the edges, with red sauce and mozzarella bubbling around it.
My fettuccine was thick with a mushroom-flavored cream sauce, studded with crumbles of bacon, mushrooms and peas. The cream sauce was decidedly real cream, a flavor I’ve missed in 12 years of cooking with soy. Add a hint more smoky bacon flavor and it would have been perfect.
We happily put a dent in each one – the hugs we needed from our imaginary Nonna – and took the rest home for the following night’s dinner.
Beer, wine and soft drinks are available. Desserts included cheesecake, fruit tart and gelato. We were too full to think about dessert — ‘wafer thin’ mint, anybody? — though the rustic fruit tart, laden with raspberries and blueberries, looked tempting.
Final notes: We were there to chill out, so the slow, spotty service was not a major issue for us. It may be for you. Be prepared to wait for drinks, refills and your dinner. And don’t bring plastic – Sal’s only accepts cash. (Although an ATM is available.)
Sal’s Pizza and Pasta
29 Spencer Plain Road, Old Saybrook