Monday, November 17, 2014

Pasta House

1806 Galemore St.
Festus, Mo.
On the Web
On Facebook

This one is complicated. Very complicated.
Pasta House is a regional chain, headquartered in St. Louis. Founded in 1974 it now has around twenty locations, most in the Metro St. Louis region. Some of the locations are owned by PH, others are independently owned franchises.
We were excited to find out they were building one in Festus. More excited that the location was on Highway A, before you actually get to Festus. During our frequent trips to the town, we watched the progress. It went pretty slow, about a year or more in construction.
Finally, Angel noticed the 'Now Open' sign flashing. So as far as deciding where to go, this was an easy week.
I'd looked at the online menu ahead of time, so I was properly prepared. We invited the boys, Adam and his friend that I call Larry.
I was a bit groggy after a very heavy nap. I'd been up at 2 A.M. for a couple of hours tending to a regular work thing, system checks. Angel and the boys made fun of me because when I'm in this state I tend to incomprehensibly mumble.
The Place:
It was dark, early for dinner service, around 5 P.M. The parking lot was nearly full. This was their first weekend being open, I supposed we weren't the only anxious ones.
We could have gone to any of the other locations, we just never had. Angel had looked at the online menu as well and was relieved to find out that it was not fast-foody. She was worried that it would be like Fazoli's, that place is simply awful.
The building was brand new, it still had that new Italian Restaurant smell to it. As we went in we saw the line. Angel asked, they said it would only be about a five minute wait. The front section is a well appointed bar with about a dozen high bistro tables and chairs. People were not only drinking at the tables but also having their meals.
Sure enough we only waited a little more than five minutes before we were called. I'd spent the time sizing up the crew. The manager was easy, better dressed than the floor crew, black shirts and jeans for them. Among the mostly young ladies a couple appeared to be go-to people that the others paid heed to. I like to know who's in charge.
We were led to a four-top barely inside the dining area. Sure enough the place was packed, the din was almost rowdy sports bar-like. Lots of families, lots of very young kids in high chairs. One of the tots was banging a spoon on the tray, something that got very old and annoying very fast.
Directly overhead was a stock ceiling speaker belting out big band music, Moonlight Serenade at the time and a very bad rendition of it. Either the recording or the sound system was murdering it with clicks and pops and squashed bars, those that know audio would call it overdrive distortion. It was  made worse by the fact that the volume was up too high for dining anyhow. Along with the loud diners, the music made me uncomfortable, I don't like loud places.
I was reminded that PH was to get certain breaks in the review. This was a new crew, a new restaurant and it was their first weekend open. So any griping I make about the service are only for comparison at a later date.
One thing we did notice to their credit was how quickly they turned tables. It explained the short wait. The last crumbs had barely hit the floor before the table was being bussed.
Another lady came by and handed us menus and asked about drinks. Tea, Sweet tea and two Cokes. A bit later she brought them and we ordered an appetizer, toasted ravioli because St. Louis.
It didn't take long to decide, I knew going in what I was getting.
The Food:
Me: Spaghetti Bolognese, small, no salad.
Angel: Tutto Mare
Adam: Volcano (Hot wing and ranch) Pizza
Larry: Bacon Cheddar Burger and fries.
For those not as smart about Italian dishes as we experts are, I'll translate. Bolognese is not baloney and mayonnaise, it is a meaty tomato sauce.  When I make spaghetti at home, which I do fairly often, this is what I make. At home, we just call it 'spaghetti'.
Tutto Mare is not horse meat, it is actually seafood over pasta. Tutto mare means roughly, 'all sea'. Clams, shrimp, scallops, that sort of thing. It's usually in a creamy sauce.
If I have to explain burgers and pizza to you then you should just leave my beloved country, right now.
The ravioli arrived in a long white plate. alongside was a think, almost chunky marinara for dipping. Angel had ordered the twelve-piece so there was plenty for everyone. I pulled two off the plate, dipped them each twice at right angles, and dropped them onto the little appetizer plate we'd been given.
They were not as crispy as I thought they would be. I expected a crunch, but it never came. The taste was very good, the pasta seemed fresh, but for me it seemed a bit rubbery. No one else complained, in fact they sort of dismissed my assessment altogether. So maybe it was just me.
We finished them up fairly quickly, then the real wait began. A new place, new crew, new kitchen I would have been completely surprised if there had not been a longer than 'normal' wait. Fortunately we had devices and the PH guest WiFi was quick and strong.
As we browsed, I took time to look around at the decor. Mostly photos and a  lot of huge movie posters, mostly in Italian or for spaghetti westerns from the 60's and 70's. One photo confused me, it was of Marlon Brando. I was never a really big fan but I do know that Brando is not Italian. He was born in Nebraska and his ancestry was all German, Dutch, etc. Like I said, I was not a big fan of the big man, but the only thing I could think of is that he might have been in a movie in or about Italy. . .  I'll have to look it up sometime.
The floors were enormous earth-tone tiles, the walls were painted a glossy dark yellow, the tables and chairs were black. It was properly lit, not too bright, not too dim. More than anything though it was loud.
There seemed to be ample staff, all running around bouncing from table to table. Another man stepped out of the kitchen and stood watch, a definite authority figure as well. He and the other man I'd pegged as a manager held several discussions, but mostly they scanned the dining area like hawks on a post.
Several minutes passed, and by several, I mean about forty five, from the time we were handed menus until
the entrees arrived. Just before the entrees showed up the new manager guy spotted me looking around and rushed over, apologized for the wait and ordered someone to go grab us some rolls.
We were served a saucer full of assorted, condiment style butter containers. then a lady came along behind us with a basket full of rolls and tonged two apiece into our appetizer plates. They were warm, almost hot and smelled heavenly, like fresh baked bread should. I cracked open one of them, the crust was pleasantly crispy, and scraped the entire contents of a butter tub into each one. Mmmm, melty butter. They were tasty, but our enjoyment was short lived as a solo act as the main course finally came.
My spaghetti and Angel's seafood pasta looked correct. After just a moment though I saw it, very disappointed. When I scooped some of the pasta toward the middle of the dish, a watery puddle formed. This wasn't because the sauce itself was watery, it was because the pasta had not been thoroughly drained before plating. I was able to stir it all around and it mixed in a little better, but it weakened the sauce.
Not that it could stand much weakening. The pasta was cooked correctly, well maybe a little overdone, and the sauce tasted just fine. . . which for me is not a compliment. As I said earlier, I make spaghetti quite often. I know a good sauce and I know a really good sauce. This was cafeteria sauce. Perfectly adequate for a modest meal, but hardly up to the depth of flavor and texture you'll find at a hundred other local Italian places. It was  red sauce and ground meat. I could detect no peppers, celery, garlic, onions etc.
This was really disappointing compared to the quite-nice marinara dipping sauce we'd had earlier, that had been almost salsa-thick. This sauce was really not any better than some of the better canned sauces at a grocery store. Not that there's anything wrong with canned sauce, I use it myself, as a starter. I always add peppers, onions, garlic, celery, etc. But when you go out to eat, especially at a place called 'Pasta House' you expect something a little better, richer, deeper. . . is that asking too much?
Angel was quite happy with her tutto mare. She especially liked the fact that the clams were not in the shell. It makes a pettier plate with clams in-shell, but it is sort of a hassle to de-shell them. There was plenty of shrimp as well, and as she does with this dish she fished all the meaty bits out without eating more than half the pasta.
That's completely normal. Neither of us ever finish our pasta. Even though mine was a 'small' I knew I couldn't hold that much heavy, starchy stuff, especially after the excellent rolls. At home I serve twice as much sauce as I got at PH and half as much noodles. I had the same problem with ratio at an Olive Garden a few weeks back the taste was okay, but the pasta to sauce proportions were just not in-whack.
I asked the boys about theirs. Larry was guarded, though he finally confessed that he wasn't very impressed with the burger. A bit bland. He didn't care very much for the fries either, though he stopped short of saying he didn't like them.
Adam had a few slices of his odd looking pizza, thin, paper thin crust,
chunks of hot wings and a pale beige sauce, Ranch Dressing, I believe. He really didn't care for the celery chunks on it. He said he got it, that hot wings are often served with a side of celery sticks and Ranch dipping sauce, but he said the celery taste overwhelmed his taste buds. He plucked the chunks off, said he wished they, like with wings, had been served on the side instead of cooked in with the pizza. other than that he said it was pretty good, but would not compare it to other places.
We argued a while about whether or not celery had a strong taste, when I cook I almost always cook with celery and have always thought of it as subtle. We finally decided that Adam just has weird taste buds.
Summary:
I said at the beginning that this was complicated. You see, I want places to succeed, I want a new place to be good. I'd heard good things about PH, but was not prepared for it being as lackluster as it turned out to be. It wasn't that anything was bad, there just wasn't anything there that I cannot get better versions of in other places. For Angel, it was the ambiance. I agree with that as a problem. It's too noisy, it lacks that cozy, candlelit, rough around the edges atmosphere you find at the many trattorias in the area. Sure, it cost a little less, more on par with Olive Garden, (around $16 per head plus the appetizer) maybe less, but was it worth it? I'll pay a premium for a good steak I'm not good at cooking them myself, so I don't mind. This spaghetti though was just no better than Angel and I make at home. It's not like spaghetti is hard to make.
As for all the waiting . . .  did I mention that I had to flag down the manager guy to get the check? I get that, it's a new place. I was a bit annoyed that I didn't catch our servers names primarily because no less than half a dozen different people served us, the bread lady, the tea lady and the two Coke ladies . . . I didn't tip very high, at all, because I didn't know who or what I was tipping. Yes, I completely ignored the 'suggested gratuity' list at the bottom of the check.
We will, of course, go back in a few weeks or months to see if the place runs a bit smoother. I don't know if I can count on the food being much better, I'll certainly have to try something else, probably the cannelloni, certainly not a burger. . .
The place is brand new, so it gets a pass for now. .  .



Pasta House on Urbanspoon