Sometimes, a restaurant reviewer runs the risk of upsetting a particular eatery's clientele by exposing their slightly under-the-radar gem that they wish to keep to themselves. This very well may be the case with Boulder's Il Pastaio, an understated strip-mall gem that dishes out top-shelf pasta and equally remarkable sauces.
It's both a cozy and compact spot and consequently, one's well-advised to make reservations for dinner, even during the middle of the week. During a recent weeknight visit, the place was packed, although the crowd didn't prevent service from being both prompt and professional.
Il Pastaio lives up to its name by offering a voluminous selection of some seven basic noodles, including spaghetti, pappardelle and rigatoni, as well as a dozen sauces. Sauces range from a minimalist sage and butter garnish to heavier options such as Alfredo and meat-laden red sauces. On top of that, gnocchi, fourteen different types of ravioli, and lasagna are also on offer. Gluten-free gnocchi is also available.
Of course, Italian fare isn't just pasta, so old standbys such as antipasti selections, including caprese, minestrone and multiple salads are also available. Traditional entrees, such as eggplant and chicken parmigiana are there for those who don't want to focus on noodles, but these entrees do come with a side of pasta.
After taking our starter orders, our amiable server brought us appealing crusty rolls with just the right measure of chew to kick off our meal. Splashes of good-quality olive oil, both fruity and nutty all at once, and a well-rounded balsamic vinegar significantly contributed to our enjoyment of the bread.
While listed as an antipasto course, the $9.50 antipasti Italiano, as our server advised, could also be considered a salad selection. A well above-average interpretation of that Italian-American restaurant salad staple, this version came atop a bed of fresh spinach, rather than the more pedestrian and less upscale iceberg lettuce. Fresh tomato and bean salad shared space with, among other ingredients, an appealing melange of silky fresh mozzarella, marinated roast peppers and salty salami.
From the category of house signature dishes, the $19.50 linguini Mare Nero was a visually striking entree of fresh tomato sauce, mussels and shrimp amongst a backdrop of black pasta. But you can't eat appearances, and the good news is that the silky pasta was prepared to a spot-on level of al dente. My dining companion had expected the tomato sauce to be heavier, but this was not the case. He was ultimately pleased that the lightness of this element helped enhance his enjoyment of the fresh-tasting and more delicately flavored seafood.
While the linguini might have been an exercise in culinary sophistication, a main course of gnocchi with pesto was a triumph of straightforward simplicity. The base price for a pasta with pesto here is $15.50, with a dollar upcharge for the addition of potato-based gnocchi. Happily, Il Pastaio takes a purist approach to its pesto, following the venerable recipe of pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, basil and parmigiano. The flavors of the sauce were as they should be, highlighting the herbaceous sharpness of fresh basil, pungent but not overwhelming garlic, and mellowing influences of piñon and olive oil.
As for the gnocchi itself, the worst example are the leaden ones that resemble something extruded out of a Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop. Here, though, there's a lightness of consistency indicative of a kitchen that knows what its doing, and a smooth mouthfeel makes Il Pastaio's gnocchi a sensual delight.
Il Pastaio boasts a larger-than-expected dessert selection, including eight flavors of gelato, such Italian imports as cannoli and Black Forest cake, and house made specialties, all priced at $7. We opted for two of the in-house sweets, a classic pair of tiramisu and panna cotta. The tiramisu was rich and creamy in both texture and taste, but would have benefitted from more assertive cocoa and coffee highlights. The simple panna cotta hit the mark, with its humble, but satisfying, blend of sweet cream solidified by a hit of gelatin. Winning enhancements to this ivory sweet included artful spritzes of berry and chocolate sauces.
Il Pastaio provides a consistently high-quality experience that belies its humble strip mall setting. The capacity crowds seem to indicate that this eatery possesses a loyal following, including families and couples. Hopefully, they won't be too offended by a review calling attention to this satisfying low-key gem.