Basta Pasta

>>  Sunday, April 29, 2007

Basta Pasta is a small, "hole in the wall" Italian place that I would have called a best kept secret a year ago, except now the word has really gotten out. The restaurant sits on Western Avenue close to the intersection with Putnam Avenue in Cambridgeport. An Italian flag with the word "OPEN" hangs right outside the door inviting customers inside. The restaurant is small, containing only 3 booths and 3 tables.

The restaurant is owned by Reno and Altin Hoxallari, brothers from Albania. Reno spent about 10 years working in some of Boston's well known high end restaurants before finally deciding to branch out on his own. His attention to detail and insistence on fresh ingredients is apparent in all the food at Basta Pasta. The Hoxallaris roast all their own peppers (nothing from cans or jars!), create their own soups from scratch, make their own dressing (the Caesar salad dressing is excellent), and cook all the pasta dishes one at a time to order. The proscuitto is imported from Italy, and the hamburgers are freshly made on the spot from ground beef. French fries are created from hand-cut potatoes.

If you're lucky, they will be featuring a special. Reno creates amazing specials, dishes reminiscent of the type he used to make in the fancy restaurants across the river. These dishes are usually priced well under $20 - truly a steal at that price. Examples of specials we've had include meat dishes, such as roasted leg of lamb with broccoli rabe and risotto and roasted duck with mashed potatoes and asparagus; pasta dishes, such as homemade lobster ravioli, pasta with shrimp and tomatoes and pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe; and seasonal dishes, such as butternut squash risotto.

If there is no special that day, ("everything's special!" according to Altin) you can still order off the regular menu. Most of the regular dishes range between $6-$11. The sandwiches are around $6 and the pizzas around $10. These dishes are excellent. Homemade fresh pasta is usually our favorite option. Our favorites include the squash olives (fresh pasta tossed with a lot of garlic, olive oil, arugula, tomatoes, and olives), the bolognese (meat sauce), and the baked stuffed eggplant (layers of thinkly sliced eggplant baked with spinach, breading, and cheese - excellent dish). The chicken with broccoli dish with olive oil is also delicious - we often ask them to add a little bit of hot pepper flakes to it to make it spicy. We also love the arancini (deep fried risotto balls filled with cheese) and the calamari (not fried - squid stewed in a flavorful tomato sauce). Many of our friends rave about the garlic bread. The pizzas are also very good. They have several creative flavors, including a proscuitto and gouda pizza and also a pesto chicken pizza.

We love this place and go at least once a week. We will often order food for dinner gatherings as well. They cater and are actually able to make food for several hundred people. They are very willing to tailor any dish according to your preferences. As an example, we went with a Singaporean friend who really liked spicy food. Reno and Altin whipped out their hottest pepper that they had imported from Japan. The dish was super spicy but very flavorful - our Singaporean friend was happy, although sweating quite a bit during the meal!

You might ask if there are any negatives to this place. Well, they don't serve alcohol (so no wine with dinner), and they don't have ice. Drinks come from a refrigerator that contains a variety of bottled drinks (Coke, San Pellegrino, Nantucket Nectars, Aquafina). If the drinks happen not to be very cold, there's no ice to solve the problem. The general everyday menu does not include a lot of the seafood dishes you would typically expect at a North End restaurant, such as mussels, clams, shrimp, and fish.

Over all, however, the restaurant is excellent and the prices are very reasonable. The atmosphere is casual. You go up to the counter, order your food, and then pick it up from the counter when they call your name. You essentially bus your own table and get your own drinks. We continue to return because we think it's totally worth it for the food. Did I mention that we didn't visit the North End for over a year after we discovered this place?

Other reviews of Basta Pasta
Boston Globe Restaurant Review
Boston Globe "Short Orders"
Boston Globe "Two for $20"

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Texas Roadhouse

Texas Roadhouse is located in the parking area in Everett near the Home Depot, Costco, and Target that we like to visit. The first thing you hear when you walk towards the restaurant is loud, lively country music. Large signs on the door warn "peanuts and peanut powder everywhere!" As you look around, it become apparent why the warnings are necessary. Each table contains a metal bucket brimming with peanuts with the shell. Peanut shells are strewn throughout the old, wooden floor. The ambiance is loud. Multiple TVs blast the Red Sox / Yankees game on TV while wait staff bustle around. After waiting about 15 minutes, we were seated. As we walked to our seats, we saw a line of waitresses dancing a choreographed country jig.

Texas Roadhouse clearly specializes in steak. At the front of the restaurant sits a large glass counter which contains rows and rows of raw beef cuts. The menu contains several steak selections, such as rib eye, prime rib, filet minion (called the Dallas Filet), steak tips, and sirloin. They also have other food, such as ribs, country fried chicken, roasted chicken, grilled salmon, and even a veggie platter, which consists of your choice of any four sides. The back of the menu contains burgers and sandwiches. There is also a sizable drink menu, especially beer.

Bryan ordered the 10 oz rib eye. Most of the steaks come in multiple sizes, such as 10 oz, 12 oz, and 16 oz. His first comment was, "this is surprisingly good for the price." Accordingly to Bryan, most cheaper steak houses will not actually cook meat "medium rare" when he orders it that way. They tend to overcook the meat. Here, the meat was perfectly medium rare and quite flavorful. The vegetable sides were also surprisingly good. The medley of cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots was not overly mushy and subtly flavored with a bit of butter and salt. The broccoli was slightly over cooked, but over, not bad. We ordered sides such as baked sweet potato, baked potato, chili and Caesar salad. I thought the chili and Caesar salad were rather average. The baked potatoes were fine, although how hard is it to bake a potato?

Over all, our meal (including two Corona's) was only $33. A pretty good value. We would definitely recommend this as a place to go if you happen to be shopping in the area and are hungry. The place is popular, but they do allow you do call ahead and put your name down on the waiting list, which is nice.

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>>  Saturday, April 28, 2007

We went to Dom's tonight. It's a restaurant right off of Salem Street in the North End. We decided to go there because Zagat's gave it a 26 rating for food It also seemed to have plenty of seating available right away.

Over all, we thought it was pretty good. Dom's has an extensive menu. All of their pasta dishes come in two different sizes. Appetizer portions, which range from $9-$12, and entree portions, which average about $20. The entrees come with free salad and home baked bread. We decided to order a baked eggplant appetizer (baked eggplant, fontina cheese, and tomato sauce). We then ordered four appetizer sized pastas to share. Dom's has a wide variety of pastas from which to choose. For each dish, one can choose from a selection of dried pastas or fresh, homemade pastas. Since Bryan is a HUGE fan of fresh pasta, we only ordered fresh pasta. There was a choice of tagliatelle (a wide flat noodle), gnocchi (potato dumplings), or fusilli (coiled pasta). We ordered a 4-mushroom marsala-based fusilli, gnocchi with pesto, tagliatelle with meat-enhanced red gravy (Sugho di Pomodoro), and a lasagna-liked layered pasta dish with cheese, spinach, and a cream sauce. We both agreed that the fusilli was excellent. The texture of the noodle was perfectly al dente and the flavor of the mushrooms with the marsala sauce was excellent. The dish seemed to burst with flavor, yet it was not overpowering.

Bryan labeled the Sugho di Pomodoro as his second favorite, and I would agree. The sauce had a nice, smoky flavor and the meatballs were good. The tagliatelle was definitely homemade, although it was a bit overcooked and slightly soft - not al dente. When Bryan tried the gnocchi, he said, "it's definitely homemade, but I like Il Panino's better." He was referring to the Italian joint that we frequent near our home. The gnocchi was rather soft and had a bit of a grainy texture - kind of like mashed potatoes. I guess both Bryan and I prefer chewy gnocchi. The pesto sauce was pretty good. It had a fresh basil flavor and was slightly creamy. Finally, Bryan thought the layered pasta dish was pretty good. I'm not a big fan of cream sauces in general, so I didn't really like it.

The appetizer portion sizes are rather generous. For me, that portion would be more than plenty for a meal. Remember, you have to save room for dessert in the North End, whether it be at Modern Pastry, Mike's Pastry, or Cafe Vittoria's!

They have a decent wine list and also offer several types by the glass. Bryan ordered a house chianti and thought it was good.

Over all, we decided that the food was fine, but nothing to write home about. If I were to go a second time, I would probably just order the appetizer portion of the mushroom marsala dish and a glass of wine. I'd then save room for dessert at one of the cafes mentioned above.

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