Pastabilities, Syracuse, N.Y.

(Source: Syracuse.com)

Syracuse dining week is really a misnomer. The Salt City’s celebration of restaurant eating spans two weeks in the dead zone of February. Now, in most years the snow keeps people at home. In 2012, the manufactured science of climate change means sun will blind your February Friday sundown drive and a pleasant walk down West Fayette Street in 43-degree weather.

The deal is that you can eat at some of the area’s better restaurants on the cheap, typically a three-course dinner for $25 or less. Saturday evening’s dinner was planned as a last outing before the in-laws/babysitters go snowbird to the secessionist south for a month, but turned into an excuse to get together with some friends.

It’s not often that I am pleased to wait 90 minutes for a table, as I was on Friday night. First, it meant that dining week was working. It was getting people out of the house and down to a good restaurant like Pastabilities. Second, it meant that I had a chance to visit an old haunt from a long time ago. There’s a special wing of my liver devoted to the hours and dollars spent at The Limerick Pub and Irish Conference Room.

By the time we returned to the restaurant at 7:15 (Pasta’s employs a text message system to alert you when you are close to being seated), the crowd had thickened into a two-hour wait.

"West of Utica" Greens

Pastabilities opened in 1982 and moved to its spot on Franklin Street in 1985. I regularly visit for their cafeteria-style lunch, shunning it at night after some lackluster dinners in the 1990s and early 2000s. The $20 three-course menu seemed like a nice way to reacquaint ourselves.

We started with drinks. The wives went with their old standards — Jen with a malbec and The Wife with a semi-dry riesling. I opted for the Southern Tier Euro Trash Pilsener and Brian took the Nectar IPA. No one complained about their choice.

The restaurant is locally famous for two things: its homemade stretch Italian bread and a hot tomato oil, which is served in lieu of the traditional bread and butter basket. The oil is sweet, likely from roasted garlic or choice of tomato, and lives up to the “hot” with a biting pepper as you swallow. The Wife, who typical shuns spicy, couldn’t get enough.

Horrific photo of a terrific appetizer: the eggplant stack

Course one was an appetizer from a limited list of “west of Utica” greens, soup and a fried eggplant stack. Maybe our waitressed was confused, but the soup, advertised as greens and beans, looked more like a minestrone with extra beans and not a lot of greens. Speaking of greens, The Wife’s selection packed more heat than she anticipated. Escarole, cherry peppers, proscuitto and homemade breadcrumbs comprised the simple app that was cooked perfectly. My eggplant stack saw a two towers of eggplant slices with melted fresh mozzarella and topped with a fresh ricotta that had more of a creme fraiche consistency. Again, no complaints.

Three of us had Caesar salads for the second course, which were good but warrant no more mention than a sentence.

Tuscan chicken over rigatoni

The Wife and I each ordered tuscan chicken, served as a bowl of homemade rigatoni topped with ground chicken sausage and crushed fennel seed with a loose tomato sauce. The portion size did not disappoint and neither did the quality. If I were to complain, it would be that the pasta was a little watery, but again, I’m not going to. Brian’s cheese tortellini bake and Jen’s penne with pink vodka sauce saw them stopped in their tracks. Neither finished, but not for a lack of flavor. Again, no complaints.

I think we did ourselves as disservice by ordering the extra baskets of bread. I did not anticipate regular portion sizes as part of the dining week promotion. Typically, restaurants will use these events and their special menus as an opportunity to cut a portion or corner to get fannies in the stands. Pasta’s did not. A simple miscalculation of size, plus a generous serving of very, very good Italian food sent the four of us out with smiles on our faces and, again, no complaints.

Dinner and drinks for four, with tip, was $126. Pastabilities is located in Syracuse’s Armory Square on Franklin Street and open for lunch Monday through Saturday. It does not take reservations.

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