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WHAT’S FOR LUNCH? ITALIAN BRILLIANCE

040516lapastaria3-500x285-4007024Pumpkin-filled ravioli is one of the lunchtime specials at La Pastaria, seen below.  (Photos by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)

By SUSAN ERICSON

040516pastariainterior-220x165-1973014Go to Red Bank’s La Pastaria on Linden Place in the evening, and you’ll probably be waiting a while, even if you have a reservation.

As a humanitarian gesture, PieHole feeds you this little pearl of wisdom: hit this restaurant for lunch. The afternoon is a more laid-back affair, with attentive service and a menu full of familiar Italian fare that includes some enticing daily specials.

040516artichokesoup-500x375-2256917 Cream of artichoke soup was also on the lunch menu. (Photo by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)

La Pastaria, which has been in business now for 22 years, the first 11 elsewhere on the same street, can be a charming retreat from the daily grind in the middle of the day. Pillars, archways and decorative moulding add an Old World ambience to the dining rooms. Linen tablecloths and formal cutlery promise upscale attention to detail.

“When people think Italian food, they say Tuscany, but the Tuscans are scholars,” says owner Emanuela Angelo. “They’re lawyers and doctors and business people. They bring the cooks, the tailors and the musicians up from the south.”

So where do La Pastaria’s recipes come from? “Our parents and grandparents. Our family recipes,” says Angelo, who’s named for her grandmother. “We recreate the dishes we have in Italy. Napoli, Salerno, the Amalfi Coast. The best cooks are Neapolitan.”

A passion for fresh food and the sun-touched shores of southern Italy keep Angelo’s enthusiasm for her business alive. She says that she vacations in Italy every year; this year it will be Sicily.

We decided to start with a bowl of cream of artichoke soup ($5.50), which arrived in a proper, rimmed soup bowl laden with a full-flavored, field-green brew of artichoke goodness, anointed with a smart swirl of creme fraiche to mellow out the assertive artichoke flavor.

“I can’t buy enough artichokes. Everything is usable when you use fresh ingredients,” Angelo says while sharing the secret of how the chef uses the hearts and stems of the artichoke to achieve such a distinct and delicious flavor.

On the specials menu, the daily offerings were spaghetti and meatballs, pumpkin ravioli, and roasted garlic and marscapone cheese ravioli, all at the price of $10.95.

Feeling adventurous and intrigued by the description of the pumpkin ravioli option, we placed our order. When in La Pastaria, order pasta, right?

The chef is clearly acquainted with the expression, “first you eat with your eyes,” since an over-sized plate set before us was just gorgeous. Four plump ravioli swimming in a savory parmesan and maple-scented bechamel sauce circled a mound of fresh spinach sauteed with tiny bits of caramelized onion.

Like practiced tightrope walkers, the cooks in this kitchen know exactly how to balance a complex flavor palate. The pumpkin and ricotta filling in the ravioli held its texture nicely, but that little addition of maple brought this dish to a delectable finish. Every forkful of spinach and ravioli was in perfect harmony.

When the waiter asks you if you’d like a basket of bread brought to the table, say yes. Baked in-house, the bread and rolls are flecked with herbs and salt. Tasty in itself, you’ll want to save a piece to soak up the sauce from your plate.

La Pastaria is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.susan-ericson-9177851

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