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Paradise on a plastic tray: a quick lunch at Pastabilities in Syracuse

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SYRACUSE — After my sophomore year of college, I thought I left behind dining halls for good. No more waiting in lines, no more pointing to what I wanted from steam trays of food that had seen better days.

But on this warm Monday afternoon, I grabbed my plastic tray and got in line at Pastabilities, a popular destination in Syracuse’s Armory Square. The Italian restaurant is a bustling hot spot for dinner as well, but those in the know come for the counter-service lunch that brings back shades of undergrad days.

Just as it would at Cooper Dining Hall at my alma mater, SUNY Oswego, the meal started with a stack of trays followed by bins of forks, knives and spoons. If there had been lewd images or names carved into the trays, I would have felt right at home.

But this is a restaurant, after all. The trays are all clean and obscenity-free and, unlike at the dining hall, the silverware wouldn’t bend with the lightest of touches.

Utensils in hand, I made my way through the line, which was speckled with guests wearing T-shirts and shorts next to suited businessmen. I made my order: homemade fettuccine with Pastabilities’ famous spicy tomato oil with a generous sprinkling of pecorino Romano cheese ($7.25). Add in a drink and tax and the bill came to exactly $9.99. How’s that for a lunch under $10?

There are side salads that change daily, ranging from $4 for a single one to $9.75 for a platter of four, and entrée salads on the printed menu, such as Thai beef salad ($7.95 for a large). There are personal pizzas and calzones as well.

They looked delicious, but I was after the namesake dish. The pastas range from $6.25 for the house tomato sauce to $8 for the chicken riggies or basil pesto and shredded cheese. Most of the pasta options that at dinner may run $12 to $17 can be had for around half the price. The lunch portion is smaller, however, but I was comfortably full after my meal — and that’s coming from someone who really likes his pasta. Containers are available for both takeout and leftovers, but I think it’s worth staying inside and enjoying the atmosphere.

The vibe is decidedly more urban and industrial than trattoria, with wire-caged light bulbs illuminating the bare brick bar. There’s a full bar with many local beers on tap. The Italian folk music that so many red sauce joints have playing in the background has been replaced by Broken Bells and The Postal Service. It’s a bit loud, but considering the omnipresent crowd and narrow structure of the restaurant, that’s no surprise.

For the sake of speed, the pizzas and calzones are par-baked ahead of time; only the toppings are applied, and then back into the oven for a few minutes. The cooked pasta is dunked into boiling water to heat it up, tossed with the sauce of choice and served up. It took less than three minutes for me to get my food.

All the meals are served with a slice of homemade bread, which is great for soaking up all the tomato oil left in the bowl. The oil is also sold by the 15-ounce jar for $7, and it seemed like a good third of the jar goes into each portion. How good is the tomato oil? I’ll let the fact that I have a jar of it in my fridge now be testament to that.

In addition to the pasta, there are daily entrée choices. On this day, barbecue brisket sliders and a hot meatball sub were the choices. There are calzone, sauce and pizza choices that change daily as well. The sub was billed as being served on their house bread with pancetta, caramelized onions, aged provolone cheese and a covering of “50/50” sauce, an equal blend of tomato sauce and tomato oil. Well, I know what I’m getting next time.

But on to what I had this time. The fettuccine and linguine are both homemade and were by far the most popular choices that afternoon. It’s unclear if the other pastas are homemade. The menu reads “all of our pasta is made fresh daily,” but if you go to the restaurant’s bakery, Pasta’s Daily Bread, only fettuccine and linguine are available for sale.

The tomato oil is billed as spicy, but the pepper twang is light and the sweetness of the tomatoes provides an excellent counter to the spice. All the pastas are tossed with the sauce — rather than simply topped — so each thick, toothsome strand is covered in the sauce.

(For my latest entry into the ever-growing list of food tragedies, I add improperly sauced pasta. For a bonus entry, I add poorly drained pasta as well. A sauce can be flavorful and have the perfect consistency, but when a boatload of water is swimming in the bottom of the bowl, it’ll never be a good thing.)

It may be called tomato oil, but the fine puree of tomato and hearty slices of garlic push it closer into sauce country.

It might be an oil, it might be a sauce, but it’s certainly delicious. As the restaurant’s owner, Karyn Korteling, says on www.hottom.com — because why not make a separate website just for the one ingredient — the inspiration for the oil/sauce/whatever it is came from a stop at an unassuming café in Tuscany on trip to Italy in 1989. Apparently she and her husband stopped there because she was five months pregnant with their first child and needed a quick bite on the way to their intended dining destination.

The tomato oil, tossed with the homemade fettuccine, was somehow both light and decadent all at once. To be fair, I could probably eat it with a spoon out of the jar and be happy. Good thing I picked up a jar to go.

No trip to Pastabilities would be complete without a trip to their bakery across the street. Pasta’s Daily Bread is open only until 5:30 p.m. during the week, 5 on Saturday and 4 on Sunday, so if you’re going for dinner, you might want to get your bread before you eat.

And I would highly recommend doing so. A loaf of stretch Italian bread is $3.25, about 2 feet long and such a great texture that you won’t be able to help tearing into it once you leave the shop. If there hadn’t been sliced samples available, I might have dived in immediately. I would like you to know that I had the restraint to wait until I walked back to my car before ripping off the heel in a carb-driven frenzy.

There’s also a variety of focaccias, and for those who don’t need 24 inches of bread, many of the different breads are available as rolls.

They use that stretch bread for the sandwiches, which pair nicely with the soups available for takeout. The soup of the day was the same at both places on the day I was there, which is the norm, I’d assume.

Grab a loaf and a tub of the hot tomato oil to go and it might fend off the cravings you’ll undoubtedly get until your next visit. Might.

Eater’s Digest reviews and blog entries can be viewed at http://wdt.me/eatersdigest. Have a tip or suggestion? Email Jake Pucci at jpucci@wdt.net or follow him on Twitter at @EatersDigestNNY.







Rating: 4 spoons





Pastabilities

311 S. Franklin St.,

Syracuse, NY

315-474-1153

Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday

Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday

http://pastabilities.com/



Pasta’s Daily Bread

308 S. Franklin St.

315-701-0224

Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday

Saturday: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sunday: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

http://pastabilities.com/bakery.htm

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