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Review: Pasta And ... is an authentic Italian gem in ... Margate? | Video

 

★★★½

I know I’m in the hands of a special chef when I order a dish with an ingredient I don’t typically eat — in this case tripe, the lining of a cow’s stomach — and not only tolerate it but almost lick the bowl. Such was the case with the tripe soup at Margate restaurant Pasta And … , a delectable starter in which the tripe ($10), simmered from its natural chewy state to blissful, is served with large and hearty beans and a robust base of vegetables and onions.

Another indicator of greatness is when I order something I’m predisposed to liking — in this case porcini mushroom risotto ($24) — and it rises to the status of “best I’ve tasted in a long time.” At Pasta And … , the risottos are prepared from scratch when ordered, which means they take a bit longer (20 to 30 minutes) but are worth the wait. Each grain of Arborio rice popped with creamy, granular decadence, a heaping symphony of sin when melded with garlic, parsley, butter, truffle oil and porcini slices.

Yet another mark of excellence is when something familiar and ubiquitous — in this case pasta — is taken to another level. At Pasta And … , everything from agnolotti to tortellini is made in-house, and they are at their best when topped and stuffed with ingredients from chef Luigi Marenco’s native Northern Italian turf of Piedmont. Ravioli is filled with minced wild boar ($24) in a simple sauce of butter and thyme. Pillows of potato gnocchi ($18) are smothered in creamy Gorgonzola with walnut. A tangle of fettucine with shredded lamb and straw mushrooms ($23) is finished in a Sambuca reduction, a lively twist. Pappardelle — wide, flat and texturally perfect — are tossed with a sauce of braised duck and orange liqueur ($22).

Very good food is even better when a restaurant has hospitality to match. Pasta And … is a cozy place, only 40 seats and 10 tables inside, and servers treat newcomers like family. It is proper, with white tablecloths and candles set on each table, but not stuffy or formal. Chef Luigi routinely steps out of the kitchen to roam the floor, greeting patrons and assessing satisfaction. We knew the family-run restaurant was serious about happiness when the dessert hater in our group asked if a cheese plate could be assembled. Too many places say no. Some begrudgingly comply. Pasta And … not only made it happen but did so with pleasure, serving a wonderful plate of mixed, aged cheese accompanied by mostarda di Cremona, a sticky and slightly spicy Northern Italian condiment of candied fruit.

We walked out floating, and pinched ourselves. Was this really Margate? Could this little slice of Piedmont really be tucked in a strip shopping center next to a Papa John’s, a 7-Eleven and an Asian massage parlor?

The story of Luigi and Esperanza Marenco is really the story of America. Luigi grew up in Rivalta Bormida, a small village in the Montferrat region near Turin. His mother and grandmother (who had 17 children) were professional chefs. The kitchen seemed Luigi’s destiny, too, as he started working in hotels and restaurants in Italy. Then, he followed his heart and became a musician, a guitarist who moved to Venezuela and landed in a band for a top star that traveled the world. He met Esperanza, a Colombian who lived in Venezuela, and they married nearly 40 years ago. He grew tired of the road. In 1990, they opened a pasta shop and salumeria in his native Piedmont. In 2007, with two of their three children living in the United States and unhappy with the direction of Italy, they moved to South Florida. Their youngest son, Gian Marco, who worked at the pasta shop, moved with them.

In 2008, they bought Pasta And … , a restaurant that started as an Italian deli in 1994. “We didn’t know anything about the area,” Luigi says. “But they had this beautiful pasta machine.” They took a chance. Ten years later, they are going strong. Luigi and Esperanza work the kitchen, which has an impressive 16-burner stove. Gian Marco Marenco, 30, runs the front of the house. They survived the Great Recession of 2008 and slowly built through word of mouth. They also have coped and persevered through tragedy this year, the random murder on I-95 in February of assistant manager Edvin Milkevic, 29, an immigrant from Lithuania. “He was my best friend,” Gian Marco says. “We were all devastated. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I heard about Pasta And … from three people in the past year. When I finally made it in for a meal recently, it was one of those places where I said, “Why did it take me so long?” I returned for my second meal two days later, by myself and at my own expense, because I wanted to eat some more. And I wanted to soak up a decidedly European atmosphere, one where things are not rushed and best enjoyed with a glass or two (or bottle or two) of good wine and good conversation.

On my second visit, Matteo the server remembered me from a few days earlier and brought me a nice glass of Barolo. I ate the tripe soup ($10), a Northern Italian specialty, and bucatini puttanesca ($18), a salty, spicy Southern Italian dish of anchovies, capers and olives. Puttanesca is a tomato-based sauce from Naples, and one can tell that Luigi is on firmer ground with the refined sauces and rustic meats of the North than reddish things and sea creatures from the South. There is lasagna on the menu, as I suppose there must be in a South Florida Italian restaurant, and a dining mate ordered it on my first visit. It was fine, but it lacked soul, and even my tablemate (not an adventurous food type) found himself more enthusiastically digging into a plate of gnocchi with wild boar sauce ($24), a daily special.

A branzino fillet ($30) was slightly overcooked on my first visit, and the delicate fish was marred by numerous small bones. The lone dish I had that completely missed the mark was lobster ravioli ($25), labeled ravioli dell’amore (“ravioli of love”) on the menu. Luigi says it is one of his biggest sellers, especially popular with women, housemade ravioli stuffed with minced lobster covered in a pink cognac sauce and topped with shrimp, calamari and scallops. It was a mound of blah that did not pop.

If one orders correctly, Pasta And … can be a four-star experience. Ravioli with pear and Taleggio cheese ($25), and smaller meat-and-cheese raviolis simmered in a Barolo reduction and topped with braised beef ($22), are items that make Pasta And … a standout. Octopus “carpaccio” ($15), cooked and compressed pieces of octopus that are chilled and sliced into thin circles, is a fine specialty from the northern coastal region of Livorno. Osso buco Milanese, ($35) braised veal shank served with saffron-infused risotto, is a hearty, winter dish that tasted pretty good in summer, particularly the gooey marrow that I spooned onto bread from Gran Forno bakery of Fort Lauderdale.

Desserts, made daily by Esperanza, are very good, including a fluffy Italian ricotta cheesecake ($7) with lemon zest in the crust, rum-soaked tiramisu ($8) and a molten chocolate cake ($9) that was well balanced and not overly sweet. Pasta And … is a treat from start to finish.

Pasta And …

4990 W. Atlantic Blvd., Margate

954-977-3708 or PastaAndRistorante.com

Cuisine: Italian, focusing on northern regional specialties

Cost: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers cost $8 to $16, pastas and risottos $16-$28, fish and meat entrees $20-$35, desserts $7-$9

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, closed Mondays. Will be closed for vacation Aug. 27-Sept. 13

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

Bar: Beer and wine only, very good but somewhat pricey wine list spotlighting Italian regional varietals

Noise level: Conversational, a bit of a murmur when full

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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