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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    In the market for great Italian food? Get to Gargano’s in Old Saybrook

    Individual Pizza Fornaio (Marisa Nadolny/Special to The Day)
    Cacio e Pepe (Marisa Nadolny/Special to The Day)
    House-made pomodoro sauce for sale (Marisa Nadolny/Special to The Day)

    Back in 2019, I sang the praises of Grano Arso in Chester, an excellent Italian restaurant in a gorgeous building in a picturesque town. It was fairly new at the time but had already garnered raves in local and not-so-local media. I have since demanded dinner at Grano for most special occasions since and it has yet to disappoint.

    Now there’s even more to love at Grano’s sister operation, Gargano Pasta & Italian Market in Old Saybrook.

    Launched by Joel & Lani Gargano, the same savvy team that made Grano Arso a destination, their new enterprise offers foodies several more ways to enjoy their own signature fresh Italian fare, as well as the ingredients that inspire it.

    Want to make your own pasta dish at home? Gargano offers house-made sauces and freshly produced pasta. On a recent visit, a very nice gentleman explained the pasta-making process and warmly encouraged us to explore the shop and report back with any questions. (I left that day with a box of rigatoni, $8, and hopefully I’ll muster up the nerve to do it culinary justice soon.)

    If you prefer to let someone else do the cooking, the in-house cafe menu offers several dishes – salads, pasta, antipasti, and sandwiches – that will give you the right introduction to what’s served at Grano Arso. We decided to make a meal out of one visit and ordered one item off each section of the menu. If the Misticanza Salad ($12) is all I could eat for the rest of my life, I’d probably be just fine. Beautiful, lush lettuces are topped with shaved fennel, and it’s up to you to decide how much of the accompanying citron vinaigrette and Pecorino Toscano cheese to add on top. Typically, I say a great salad doesn’t need dressing, but the citrus-y magic of the dressing is too delectable to ignore, and, like everything else, even better with the cheese sprinkled in. And note, this is real cheese, not the stuff of green shaker cans, and you can taste the difference.

    For our pasta course, we went with the Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe ($16); that is, fresh spaghetti tossed with pecorino cheese and black pepper (served with two slices of semolina bread). It sounds simple – pasta, cheese, and pepper – but sometimes simplicity produces the most delicious results, and that’s definitely true here. Our serving had just the right amount of cheese-to-pasta ratio (read: it wasn’t dripping with cheesy-butter slurry) and the black pepper was a great accent upon the perfectly prepped pasta.

    Did we mix contexts a bit and add an order of Polpete (meatballs) to our non-red-sauce pasta dish? We did and we’ll do it again. Gargano’s polpete is a pork and beef blend, served with a bit of simple, bright tomato sauce and a bit of parmigiano reggiano. You get three medium-sized meatballs for $13, and that was enough for two of us with some left over. Of course, they’re so tender, moist, and flavorful, one is inclined to ignore a rapidly filling belly and keep eating.

    We loved all of the above, but the Italian Beef Sandwich ($18) was what we raved about the most afterward. Consider the ingredients: sliced sirloin, peppers and onions, giardiniera (an Italian-style relish) and spicy Calabrian chili upon a fresh roll. The thinly sliced peppers and onions stay put and add great crunch to the tender beef; then, thanks to the chili, you get a decent kick of heat and a pop of flavor that puts an exclamation point on the whole experience. It’s a great sandwich unlike any we’ve ever sampled, but is it $18 great? Maybe. It’s also served with very tasty “pasta crisps,” fried pieces of pasta with a good dash of black peppers, made in-house.

    On another trip, we created a lunch of sorts from some of the prepared foods, including the spectacular caprese salad ($12 and a very generous portion). This hearty helping of sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese was summertime perfection, and even better made into a sandwich with the bakery’s semolina bread – lightly crisp on the outside and pillow soft on the inside ($7). The accompanying sweet balsamic glaze is very good, but the natural flavors alone are well worth the price. Plus, the tomatoes leave behind lovely juices that must be scooped up with the rest of your bread. Grab this dish now while the local tomatoes are still good!

    We hardly needed more food, but at the register, I noticed a selection of personal-sized rounds of focaccia bread topped with garlic, cheeses, and one topped with tomato sauce and a dusting of cheese – the pizza fornaio ($5). It’s an ideal lunch-to-go item that’s quite filling and bursting with flavor thanks to the tangy tomato, a bit of garlic and seasonings, and good cheese. The springy focaccia is at least two inches thick and brings the perfect balance of moisture and light crispiness on the perimeter.

    And still, we’ve only scratched the surface. We have yet to sample the local cheeses and charcuterie that fill one display case; there are more bread and bakery options on the list; and somehow we didn’t order any coffees. This is a good problem to have, because it will be an absolute pleasure to go back to Old Saybrook to enjoy the many wonderful flavors of Italy at Gargano Pasta & Italian Market. Meanwhile, we’ll see if we can give that box of rigatoni the preparation it deserves.


    Gargano Pasta & Italian Market

    75 Main St., Old Saybrook

    (860) 339-3726


    Cuisine: All things Italian, available in several ways, including fresh pasta dishes, salads, sandwiches, and antipasti from the cafe menu; baked goods and espresso; meals, sides, sauces, and dried pasta to go prepared in-house; and a wide variety of imported pantry items you never knew you needed, from olives, cheeses, and mushrooms to hazelnut spread, vinegars, and lemon marmalade.

    Atmosphere: Sweeping space with modern decor and a great layout; beautifully arranged shelves and displays; and excellent indoor and outdoor seating options.

    Service: Very welcoming and efficient, and the staff knows their product well.

    Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; closed Monday

    Prices: The quality is there and it does cost a bit; for example, $16 house-made pomodoro sauce and $8 boxes of freshly crafted pasta in the market. On the cafe menu, pasta dishes top out at $26; sandwiches are priced at $17 and $18; and salads average $13. Cannoli from the bakery start at $4, and a loaf of semolina bread is $7.

    Credit cards: Accepted

    Handicapped access: No stairs to enter; a large parking lot; and a very spacious interior.

    Reservations: N/A

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