You could easily overlook the most exciting dish at Pastaria, the latest venture from acclaimed chef Gerard Craft of Niche, Brasserie by Niche and Taste. The menu calls it simply "Chitarra" and offers no further description aside from a list of the supporting ingredients: olive oil, garlic, chile. In this case, though, such a list is apt because the dish brings nothing but pasta alla chitarra (spaghetti-like strands so called because traditionally they are cut from the sheet of dough with a fretwork of wires; here they are extruded from a pasta machine) tossed with olive oil, slivered garlic and chile-pepper flakes.
It looks like the plate of buttered noodles your parents had to make because you, you picky brat, refused to eat anything else.
But you haven't seen the chitarra yet. You've overlooked it because there is so much else going on at Pastaria. From the moment the restaurant opened in September, crowds thronged the place, filling the dozens of tables crammed into the spacious dining room, drowning out the indie rock on the sound system with their chatter. The wait at dinner can stretch to an hour, sometimes two — you get one of those vibrating pagers to alert you when your table is ready — and those biding their time pack the bar and spill out into the entryway, clutching glasses of Italian white or red or pints of local craft beer.
Yet even when Pastaria is at its busiest, the space is so big that it never feels full. Arriving for the first time, you might be surprised at how big it is. The exterior is nondescript: one of two occupied storefronts on the ground floor of the parking garage of the new Centene Plaza tower in downtown Clayton. (The other occupied storefront is Craft's Niche, relocated from Benton Park; the two restaurants are contiguous, but unless you wander from one to the other by mistake, the two spaces are separate.)
Slideshow: Pastaria in Clayton Photos
To your left as you enter is a station where a cook makes fresh pasta, both for the restaurant and for you to purchase and boil up at home. Also displayed here is the selection of pastry chef Ann Croy's gelati. These, too, you can order to go — and if you don't have room for dessert after your meal, you should, whether your tastes run toward more traditional chocolate (whose main ingredient comes courtesy of Springfield-based Askinosie Chocolate) or to something more creative, like fresh- and candied-ginger gelato with a pear-butter swirl.
To your right is a staircase, which leads to a mezzanine level, where Pastaria and Niche share a private dining room. Beyond the host's station is the dining room proper. Though your table is close to your neighbor's, the effect isn't claustrophobic thanks to the ceiling, which towers some two stories above. Pizza peels signed by Craft's chef pals local, national and international decorate the high walls to either side. Along the back wall, above the open kitchen, are blown-up photographs of Italian scenes.
In the kitchen cooks plate pastas and twirl pizza dough and slide pizzas into and out the brick oven with admirable efficiency. You might see Craft there — I watched him take over the pizza oven for a few minutes — but his chief lieutenant, Adam Altnether, is Pastaria's executive chef, and the executive sous chef is Brian Moxey, a St. Louis native recently back from New York City, where he worked at the acclaimed restaurant Hearth.
(Disclosure time: This is the fifth time I've reviewed a Craft restaurant. I've dined at his places dozens of times. He knows who I am; he and his staff knew I was there.)
You have your table, you've taken in your surroundings — still, you overlook the chitarra. The menu has so much else to offer. Among the pastas your eye might gaze past the chitarra to the canestri cacio e pepe, thick, curving pasta shells in a shockingly creamy sauce of grated cheeses (Grana Padano and pecorino) spiked with black pepper. So few elements yield a wide range of flavors — salty, tangy, funky, peppery — all of them set to the solid semolina backbeat of the pasta. Garganelli is a twisted tube of pasta served here with tender braised beef, black olives, a dusting of breadcrumbs and, the grace note, a gremolata whose zing of lemon zest brightens the dish and provides a welcome counterpoint to the hearty meat.
The pistachio ravioli is a downright sexy dish, postage stamps of pasta folded around a luscious blend of braised pistachios and mascarpone. The ravioli and browned bits of pistachio are tossed with mint and and grated Grana Padano in a brown butter-lemon sauce that deepens the dish's nutty flavor while, like gremolata to garganelli, bestowing a lovely citrus kiss.
Pastaria's pizzas are made in the Neapolitan style: thin of crust and fired quickly in a very hot wood-burning oven. The crust is lovely, with a good chew and properly speckled underneath with blistered char. There are basic pizzas: a margherita; a four-cheese variety; a pie with Fontina cheese and housemade pepperoni, the cured meat earthier than more conventional, processed pepperoni. A more adventurous diner might opt for the "Brussels Sprouts" pizza, the pungent vegetable, shredded and spiked with lemon, served with mozzarella cheese atop a richer-than-rich sauce of Béchamel, made even richer by rendered lardo.
There is a brief (three) selection of traditional entrées. I tried the salmon roasted in the wood-burning oven. This brought a beautiful piece of fish, one side of the exterior browned crisp, seasonably seasoned with lemon and capers and served with roasted cauliflower and new potatoes. The only appetizers, per se, are roasted-radish bruschetta and the "Crispy Risotto Balls," miniature arancini thick with gooey melted cheese. I rarely get excited about salad, but the shaved kale salad, with pecorino cheese and an anchovy dressing, is the best (non-Caesar) Caesar salad I've ever had.
Though its Clayton location draws business-suited expense-account types and Craft's track record entrances those millennial foodies who need a sommelier to pair each course with the appropriate Instagram filter, Pastaria is by design and price a casual spot more than welcoming to families. There's even a kid's menu: spaghetti in tomato or meat sauce; a cheese pizza; mac & cheese.
But if you bring your kids to Pastaria, I have a suggestion. Skip the kid's menu and, if you've overlooked it for your own choice, order them the chitarra. It really isn't that different from a plate of buttered noodles. Its beauty and charm is its simplicity: the lightly chewy pasta coated with the fruity, nutty oil, the garlic softened to a very mild bite, just a pinch of chile heat.
Which is why the chitarra is so exciting: It's the perfect introduction to what simple, casual and affordable Italian food should be, not the limp, oversauced slop it all too often is. This jaded reviewer, a picky brat in bigger clothes, scarfed down every last bite.
Slideshow: Pastaria in Clayton Photos