Excluding technical mistakes (an appetizer that's wrongfully charred, a main course that's cold in the middle) there are few things more disappointing than pasta that isn't cooked well. But restaurants committed to perfecting pasta, turning out dishes with an al dente bite instead of soggy, overcooked noodles, separate the wheat from the chaff.
Almost like a permanent popup within The Tasting Room, Arabella Casa di Pasta — the blink-and-you-miss-it prodigy that anchors the cobblestone courtyard — has emerged as a go-to spot for a correctly executed bowl of pasta. It serves some of the best house-made fusilli and linguine in the city. (On Mondays, Arabella does not serve food but The Tasting Room offers cheese plates.)
Bucking the trend of fly-by-night pop-up restaurants that shuffle into and out of symbiotic relationships in offbeat spaces, The Tasting Room — a high-end, exposed- brick-and-chandelier wine shop — and Casa di Pasta are intertwined.
Located in the former home of Diva Dawg, the wine bar and restaurant has been completely transformed from a highbrow hot dog stand into a candles-and-roses affair. Despite its hoity-toity decor, the laid back atmosphere completely embodies the West Coast vibe of its owners, husband and wife team Toby and Lisa DeVore. (There's also a good bit of white leather seating, which is brave since wine and sauce both make fantastic stains.)
Patrons pass in and out between the wine shop and courtyard, sampling glasses of wine from the ever-growing list while waiting for Italian dishes. The collection of Eastern European wines is novel, with a rose-tinted 2012 Pullus pinot grigio from Slovenia that's crisp enough to make even the most humid day bearable. While its worth sampling a variety of options over a few visits, if you're planning on having more than a couple of glasses in a single night, it makes more sense to buy a bottle; by-the-glass prices are steep — $12-$13 on average.
While the wine list is long, the menu at Arabella Casa di Pasta is very small. At first glance, its tight focus on build-your-own pasta combinations seems to have more in common with a buffet line than a date-night destination. Take one bite, however, and the difference is clear. Casa di Pasta chef Phillip Marks makes all the pastas in house, including a full-bodied spinach variety. Unlike many Italian joints, where a moat of sauce is unceremoniously glopped on to a plate, the pastas steal the show with a perfectly portioned sauce-to-noodle ratio. All this is accomplished at a reasonable price: A full meal — appetizer included — probably won't run more than $25.
Pesto cream, which is made with pecans instead of pine nuts, has a buttery flavor without any of the tinny aftertaste often associated with pine nut dishes. It pairs particularly well with the fusilli, which picks up sauce in its spirals. Topping this dish (or any of the pastas) with a smattering of Italian sausage, which combines sweet sage with a punch of heat from red chili flakes, is a solid bet. Also notable are the meatballs, which are cue ball sized, tender and spotlight the kitchen's use of the herb bed located below the ordering window.
If you're looking for a healthy dose of umami, the funghi sauce — a thin-but-creamy white sauce with an assortment of mushrooms — is hearty yet balanced, making the subtle differences between mushrooms discernable. One of the menu's few misses is the shrimp piccata, which makes too liberal use of a mouth-puckering, lemon-infused extra virgin olive oil, and the shrimp have an unpalatable rubbery texture.
If you're on a low-carb diet or trying to avoid headache-inducing histamines, it's probably best to take a pass on this duo. If not, The Tasting Room and Arabella Casa di Pasta could be the perfect spot for your next low-key, yet luxurious, weekend meal.