Review: Justa Pasta

Refreshed 06.09

Justa Pasta

One quickly learns, if you go to Justa Pasta and have the Caesar Salad, you are done for the night. Don’t go on a date; certainly don’t go to a movie. Do the world a favor and lock yourself in the house until the garlic goes away. We are not talking a subtle, balanced Caesar here, more a garlic bomb. That being said, when you know what to expect it can be a nice change. I go there every time I think I might be getting sick, as it scares any germs out of my body.

In 1990 Justa Pasta started out as a fresh pasta maker for local restaurants. Quite a few of the better places in the area used their ravioli and noodles. Over time, owners Roland and Jessica Carfagno opened a to-go window, serving pastas with your choice of a couple of sauces and a bit of bread. I used to pick up lunch there all the time and carry it up to the rose garden, where I’d take my time to eat, looking at the city below. Justa Pasta grew slowly, opening a small restaurant in 1998 for lunch, expanding the menu, adding dinner hours, and now enlarging again this week into a much bigger space. The new room is padded with a good amount of colorful sound baffling to keep the noise level down. On the wall is a light fixture that is just stunning. Justa Pasta has always been one of those place you hesitated to tell people about, because it was very small and often difficult to get in to. One can hope, with the new space, that the lines out the door will be a thing of the past. Don’t expect anything fancy; order at the counter just inside the front door and choose your table. They’ll bring your food to you.

I am not about to say that this is the best pasta in Portland, but I will say that it stands head and shoulders above anything similarly priced in the area. One can get a complete meal for $12.00 and leave pleasantly full. After this experience at Justa Pasta, you’d never go to Pastini again, but then you should never have gone in the first place.

I like a restaurant that keeps the menu on its website up to date. I’m one of those strange people who likes to look it up in the afternoon, pondering over the details, fantasizing about my meal to come. Justa Pasta updates their menu every day, with the latest specials. They use quality ingredients and it shows in their dishes. Draper chicken and Painted Hills beef both show up on the menu, all pastas are homemade. When possible, they use local and organically grown ingredients. How they can do it and keep their prices so reasonable is beyond me. Most dishes and salads are available in two sizes. A small salad and small pasta will leave you quite satisfied.

The formula has pretty much stayed the same: three or four salads, a soup or two, eight pastas, and eight ravioli. A lasagna special, a chicken special, and a few other options are always available. Each meal begins with complementary bread and olive oil. The salads are good, with the Caesar for $3.65 being the standout, but like I said this isn’t your standard version but more of an acquired taste. You can get it with Draper chicken breast if you desire something a bit heartier. The one drawback is it tends to change from day-to-day as different people put it together; sometimes there is too much dressing, sometimes too little; sometimes the lettuce is dressed a bit wet. Seasonal greens with simple balanced vinaigrette, or baby spinach salads with feta and pine nuts are also available, as well as occasional specials.

They generally do a good job with winter soups, such as their Yukon Gold potato leek soup drizzled with pesto olive oil and sprinkled with a few crispy leeks. Though the leeks on top tend to get a bit soggy, the dish is eminently satisfying on a rainy night for $4.25. I could have paired the soup with the bread that comes with every meal, added a small salad, and left happy.

Dishes tend to focus on the pasta, without drowning it in sauce, though they are tending towards more these days, probably catering to American taste. Carbonara means “with coal” in Italian, and refers to the pepper which is liberally ground on top of the pasta. Here it was a recent special with smoked bacon, garlic and white wine. A simple dish with few ingredients, carbonara requires a deft touch to keep it from being overbearing. So many American versions are heavy, greasy things, loaded with cream and missing the egg which is cooked from the heat of the pasta. This one was light with pleasantly smoky bacon flavor throughout, the focus being on the fresh pasta instead of the sauce. I thought it was terrific ($11.95).

Swiss chard and ricotta ravioli with fresh basil pesto is an interesting combination of flavors – in a good way. Pesto is a very easy sauce to make, but you must have really fresh basil and good olive oil, and be very careful to get everything balanced just right. They pull it off quite well with the requisite dash of crunchy pine nuts ($6.75). I love the simplicity of pasta tossed with garlic-chili oil and have had similar dishes traveling in Italy. It makes a simple light lunch ($4.95). Italian sausage & provolone with fire-roasted bell pepper sauce is a nice contrast between the spiciness of the sausage, the smooth provolone, and the smokiness of the red peppers ($6.70)

Ravioli can have great flavor, though the pasta has tended towards the thick side lately which tends to mute things. Roasted eggplant ravioli with garlic chili oil was fairly good; the eggplant flavor pushing its way through the sauce. I really like the pumpkin sweet potato ravioli in alfredo. Both are $6.25.

Not everything is perfect. I once stayed with a family in Italy, where the grandmother taught me to make a great bolognese, simmered for hours over a low flame, so that all the flavors meld together. Recently Justa Pasta had penne, with Painted Hills beef bolognese for $6.10. This was a good effort, certainly the best I have ever had for the price, but nothing beats a slower cooking method. Their alfredo sauce is only average, but put it over the light angel hair pasta and on a good night it truly can be a heavenly meal, again for $5.50.

The wine list has about 30 choices and markup is reasonable. The staff behind the counter is familiar with the characteristics and can help you with your choice. A few average wines are available by the glass.

Desserts are limited but pretty darn good, especially the homemade ice cream available during the warmer months. They usually have carrot or German chocolate cake too; other items rotate on and off. Not exactly Italian, but this town doesn’t need another bad tiramisu.

Food is available to go, as well as many of their sauces and fresh pastas, including a huge selection of ravioli. Take them home, throw some flour around the kitchen and say you cooked all day. I won’t tell anyone.

I’m not going to say this is the best Italian food in town, it’s not. I will say you can’t do any better for the price, the friendly staff, and the relaxed, everyday dining environment.It is on my regular rotation

  • Phone: 503-243-2249. No reservations.
  • Address: 1326 N.W. 19th Ave., Portland, OR. 97209 (a few blocks from the streetcar stop) Google Map.
  • Hours: Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30am-3:00pm. Open for dinner 7 nights: Mon-Sat 4:30-9:00pm, 9:30pm on Fri.
  • Website: JustaPasta.com

Justa Pasta on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. RM says

    You’re right about updating their website often. Last time I went for dinner we checked the website in tne AM and it had the lunch specials posted. Later in the afternoon they had changed to the dinner specials.

    We had a lasagna special and really enjoyed it. We’ll be going back.

  2. Food Dude says

    Singingpig: Welcome to the site.
    I’m in the process of editing tags for every post on the site and was reading this review a few minutes ago, thinking how much I have always enjoyed Justa Pasta. Their angelhair is some of the best I have had outside of Italy.

  3. singingpig says

    The new space (adults only lounge area) has really helped. I ate there tonight and notice they have added a second register so the line to order moves much faster.

    Tonight I had the tomato basil soup which was delicous and actually tasted like tomatoes and a lamb lasagna.

    2 weeks ago, I had chicken milanese over angelhair pasta with artichokes & green olives and a lemon,butter,caper sauce. It was so good it made my toes curl! I rarely order anything with angelhair because it is usually cooked wrong-either overcooked and mushy or big dreadlocks of “rastahair” pasta. This was perfect.

  4. says

    For those of you who really enjoy a baby spinach salad here is a little heads up for you.

    Starting this week, Justa Pasta’s baby spinach salad will be made with my baby spinach. What is different or special about that? Virtually every baby spinach salad out there is made with California baby spinach. The California growers use a smooth leaf spinach because it is so easy to wash–there are no folds or crinkles in the leaf to hold the dirt. I grow an old fashioned ‘savoyed’ type of spinach. When the plant breeders bred out the crinkles, they also bred out the flavor and texture of the old savoy types. Much like they bred the flavor out of tomatoes when they bred a tomato that could stand up to machine harvesting and being shipped around the country.

    Anyway, I grow an old savoy variety. The leaf is thick, succulent and crinkly with a nice toothy texture. And the flavor–it actually tastes like spinach. Lovely deep green color.

    I don’t know how long it will last as I am still learning how to grow it in succession all year. I am certain I will have it for at least 2 weeks. Due to the rainy weather I wasn’t able to plant a new seeding until last Tuesday, so there may be a gap. Thanks to the rainy weather, last Tueday’s seeding came up yesterday.

  5. says

    Chambolle,

    I am still in the trialing stage, which is a more positive way of saying I don’t really know what I am doing.

    Right now, I am struggling just to keep up with JP. This is my 4th planting and I have learned that the yield is way lower than my salad green crops and the bugs like it more. I am going to run out of this planting before #5 is ready to go. I need to plant every week what I have been planting every 3 weeks.

    I’ll stop by when I finally get things sorted out.

    Steve

  6. grapedog says

    Given the comments here, I’ll have to try Justa Pasta again. My wife and I went there for dinner earlier this year and left without buying anything. The line was long, the children were noisy and the interior of the building felt like a warehouse. Definitely not a relaxing place to enjoy food.

  7. Food Dude says

    Grapedog, I believe the room behind the order counter is for adults only. I also try to go on the late side after the rush.

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