Quality remains Pasta Vita’s secret ingredient
In the seven years since my last review of Pasta Vita, the best-kept gourmet-to-go secret on the shoreline broke out in a big way all over the state. The eatery’s partnership with the Mohegan Holding Company paved the way for new stores at Mohegan Sun and in the towns of Wethersfield and Avon. Well and good for them, but I’m a purist, so I headed to PV’s flagship store in Old Saybrook for a follow-up review.
It’s easy to see why Pasta Vita continues to inspire new communities of foodies. When a salad is among one’s favorites after a recent tasting, you know you’re doing it right.
Though I love PV’s Greek Salad, I branched out this time in the name of gastronomical science and brought home the Arugula Salad ($8.95). In true Pasta Vita fashion, the salad size was enormous and expertly crafted. I paused for a second when I saw that arugula was the only leafy green in the mix — would the salad become too bitter after a few bites? I took heart when I saw the other components: goat cheese crumbles, lemon vinaigrette, and shaved almonds. You can imagine the wonderful texture of the cushiony greens meeting with crunchy almonds, but pair that with the excellent lemon-herb tang of the dressing and the subtle sour of the goat cheese and you’re in arugula heaven. The bitter-citrus-savory flavors bounce off each other to delicious effect.
Pasta Vita’s Chicken Chili ($6 for a pint; $12 for a quart) offered an encore symphony of flavor, in which sweet and spicy notes from four types of peppers and several seasonings — including cinnamon and brown sugar — combine to become the perfect fall food. The chili is loaded with cubed and crumbled chicken — all the better to absorb the piquant tomato base, which is also loaded with pinto and kidney beans. Consider this an excellent way to hit your protein needs for the day.
On the flip side, if it’s carbs that rev your engine, Pasta Vita offers a few varieties of sliced focaccia bread with various toppings and stromboli stuffed with meats, cheeses, and veggies. As much as we’ve enjoyed Pasta Vita’s stromboli in the past, we had yet to sample the focaccia bread, so we erred on the side of novelty. On a recent visit, from about four different varieties of topped focaccia slices, we chose one slice each of Buffalo Chicken ($3.50) and Three-Cheese ($3) focaccia. Each approximately five-inch square slice was at least an inch thick and loaded with their respective toppings — lots of finely chopped tender chicken on the one, and definitely at least three cheeses’ worth on the other, plus tomato slices. And here’s the thing: the focaccia are found in a refrigerated case, so ideally you want to warm them up before diving in. However, a sample of the cold Buffalo Chicken slice was quite tasty without heating. After a turn in the toaster oven, though, the Buffalo sauce came alive and infused the whole piece with tangy, bright flavor. The post-toaster crisped crust certainly helped amplify the experience. We loved both pieces; for me, the Three-Cheese slice won the day, thanks to lots and lots of cheese, which melted beautifully, the very good tomatos, and a good dash of garlic.
In cobbling together a recent dinner, we decided to enjoy a more complete spread: appetizer, main and side dish, and dessert. Our app of local bread and Sriracha Hummus ($3.95 for a tub) did more for the mister than it did for me. I love Sriracha sauce, and while the first wave of flavor in PV’s hummus does offer that signature sriracha kick, it fades into the background quickly and ebbs into a flavor not unlike most red pepper hummuses out there. It was fine but didn’t knock my socks off. I had higher hopes for fairly fresh-made hummus, which tends to be much better than the grocery store variety.
Our main event paired two very different classics with good results: Chicken Francese (15 ounces for $10.50) and Macaroni and Cheese (32 ounces for $9.50). You might not think the lemony chicken dish would work with a very cheesy, panko-topped pasta casserole, but proper portions of each sated us nicely, and we had enough left over for at least two more meals. It helped that the chicken — pounded properly thin but still tender — practically melted in our mouths with the lemon juice offering pleasant pops of flavor. As for the macaroni and cheese, if you like yours very cheesy indeed, with slightly al dente pasta and a generous topping with panko (that possibly included MORE cheese), then you’ll enjoy Pasta Vita’s quite a bit.
From the bigger-than-I-recall dessert section (including a few varieties of Tiramisu), I selected a two-pack of red-velvet cupcakes ($5) — mostly because each sported at least an inch of cream cheese frosting. And yet, the cake beneath emerged a strong supporting player; it was light but not too light, almost muffin-y and moist in texture, and rich in cocoa flavor. In short, it tasted like real cake, which made it much easier to bypass the bright red coloring. The cream-cheese frosting did not disappoint this connoisseur of sweet spreads, striking a great balance of sweet cream and the mild tang of cream cheese.
So, yes, indeed, Pasta Vita is becoming a Connecticut-household name, but its original fan base can rest assured that the signature quality we’ve enjoyed for years is still available right in our own backyard.
225 Elm St., Old Saybrook
Cuisine: Gourmet food to go, heavily stocked in Italian fare. Includes entrees, side dishes, sauces, salads and desserts.
Atmosphere: This bustling business draws a steady crowd to its rows of fridge and freezer cases full of prepared foods.
Prices: Moderate. Dinners average around $9.95, with smaller items like
Service: Efficient and courteous
Credit cards: All majors.
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-3 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 despite the fairly roomy interior.