Young and Hungry

Spot Check: Pasta Mia

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Pasta Mia has built its considerable reputation on preparing dishes to order and preparing customers to accept the red-sauce house's many limitations. Among them: cash only, no reservations, no substitutions, no bar, no seating until the full party arrives, and no wines by the glass other than the cheap house vino. Restaurants with significantly better pedigrees wish to God they could be so rigid.

And yet: Every day it's open, Pasta Mia has a line of eager diners just waiting to suffer for their mountainous bowl of fusilli with tomato sauce. It's a pasta house for people who like to be dominated.

For me, Pasta Mia has always been like the museums on the Mall: easily available, often attractive, but always ignored. My first visit, in fact, was this past weekend when I waited 45 agonizing, alcohol-free minutes for a spot in Pasta Mia's cramped, dated dining room, where the framed prints of pasta and other Italian ingredients have been hanging on the walls so long that sunlight has bleached them out.

When my dining companion and I were finally granted access to one of the elevated tables, it was in classic Pasta Mia-style. A woman in chef whites handed us our menus, pointed to something up the short set of steps, and let us seat ourselves at a red-checkered two-top. It had the warmth of an all-out safety blitz.

The menu is divided neatly between one page of specials ($13-$19) and one page of "Pasta...Pasta...Pasta..." (all $15). None of the pastas are made in-house, and the vast majority of them are topped with one (sometimes two) of a handful of sauces: cream, tomato, spicy tomato, pesto, or a ragù alla bolognese. Aside from the cream version, I believe all of these sauces can be (in fact, should be) prepared well before opening time.

The bolognese that swamped my companion's spinach ravioli looked like finely ground Hamburger Helper — and didn't taste much more complex than that. The sauce was made more palatable when paired with the overcooked ravioli, which at least tempered the bolognese's grainy, off-putting texture. My bowl of fusilli with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella was a swimming pool of pasta, cooked perfectly al dente but choking on its overly tart red sauce.

We took more pasta home than we ate, which is routine for anyone who dines here. It's a point of pride and, no doubt, a significant profit center for Pasta Mia, which can justify its inflated prices with each bloated bowl of penne. It works the same for the joint's starters, including this burial mound of chopped watery romaine that serves as the Caesar salad. It's slathered with a garlicy dressing and topped with a shaker full of sawdust-like Parmesan, which left a harsh bitter taste in my mouth.

Maybe I missed Pasta Mia's hey day, all those years ago when my predecessors in this chair used to rave about the place, but after this meal, I'm left with a sneaking suspicion: that Pasta Mia creates its own allure by purposely making you wait, even when empty tables are available.

The restaurant has routinely told its customers that its kitchen is too small to seat more people, but in my examination of the menu, I don't see a whole of lot here that would require a la minute preparation, aside from boiling the pasta, which, if you'll remember, they don't even make in-house.

Comments

  1. #1

    I LOVE Pasta Mia.

  2. #2

    Oh! I have been saying this for years! Thank you Thank you Thank you! It beyond me why so many people line up for that garbage! Buy a fresh tomato,any pasta, add a dash of olive oil and basil and you will have surpassed anything Pasta Mia ever did!

  3. #3

    There used to be plenty of unpretentious red-checkered tablecloth Italian-American places downtown serving decent pastas like Gusti's and AV. Then tastes changed and people started fetishizing authentic Italian cuisine and most of them folded, except for Famous Luigi's and Bistro Italiano. And Trattoria Alberto I suppose. Yet you still have a market for those folks who just want a big bowl of noodles covered with Hamburger Helper. These are the folks who line up for Pasta Mia.

  4. #4

    Pasta Mia sucks - for amazing and fresh pasta I always go to Giovanni's Trattu in Dupont. They also have the most amazing risotto!

  5. #5

    Oh man do I hate this place with a passion. First of all, whoever claims this place to be an 'authentic Italian trattoria' has obviously never been to Italy. In Italy, the restaurauntaurs are nice and treat everyone like family. Pasta Mia relishes treating their customers like absolute crap. I once saw that horrible woman kick out a couple that had waited in line for TWO HOURS because they sent their bottle of wine back. It had a black rotted cork in it. I hope this place goes out of business very soon. I know they won't be seeing a dime of my cash.

  6. #6

    I think this is known as "taking what the market will bear."

  7. #7

    It's actually the most authentic Italian restaurant I've ever been to. I lived in Rome, and this place is as close as you can get to real, non-touristy or overly upscale Italian dining. Just because it's authentic doesn't make it good, though- so every can have a different opinion though.

    $15 pastas (and actually, mine was $13 last time) is not overpriced for a restaurant. Also, their house wine is the cheapest in town, and not bad to boot. (And like Italy, is served in a carafe instead of fancy American bottles)

  8. #8

    Me thinks someone has been spoiled by fancy tables and bottle service. I'm not Italian and I haven't lived in Italy but Pasta Mia is the best tasting food (and I think the wine aint that bad either) food you can get for a good price and a casual dining experience. People in DC are spoiled and this review is evidence of that.(Really, taking hits at the pasta posters?! Come on! Hey, at least we know their overhead can't be THAT high!)

  9. #9

    Tim-

    Since you seem to despise Pasta Mia, would you be able to suggest an Italian restaurant in DC with a similar price point that you *do* like?

  10. #10

    Flippy, that's a good question and it's not as easy to answer as it once was. A.V.'s shuttering meant one less red-sauce house in the area to choose from. Famous Luigis is a historic spot near Dupont. A little cheaper than Pasta Mia and a lot less fussy. There is a terrific lasagna available at the Italian Inn in Hyattsville. See this: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/display.php?id=34846
    Olazzo in Silver Spring and Bethesda has a warm, inviting vibe (even if their pastas are boxed). Still, I'd eat Olazzo's chicken cardinale ($15) any day over what I had at Pasta Mia. Amalfi in Rockville has a wider selection of dishes than Pasta Mia; the white pizza is pretty darn good and so is the chicken saltimbocca. The house-made bread at Amalfi may be the best at any local red-sauce house.

  11. #11

    I couldn't agree with you more. The place is highly overrated and a lousy example of a good Italian restaurant. Thanks for speaking out on this.

  12. #12

    Question: "would you be able to suggest an Italian restaurant in DC..."

    Answer: "There is a terrific lasagna available at the Italian Inn in Hyattsville... Olazzo in Silver Spring and Bethesda... Olazzo in Silver Spring and Bethesda..."

    Q.E.D.

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