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