Fresh Pasta and Memories on the Menu at Paulie's Restaurant

About a year ago a friend of mine suggested Paulie's Restaurant on Westheimer for a lunch date. She knew I was on the hunt for high-quality but casual Italian food, and thought Paulie's might fit the bill. Like most people who come from immigrant Italian stock (my paternal grandmother was from Rome, my grandfather first-generation American), my standards for Italian food are pretty high, so it was a pleasure to discover Paulie's doing all the right things. The simple, straightforward menu appealed to me with a variety of soups, salads, and Panini to go along with pizza and pasta dishes. After that initial lunch I returned several times, but it wasn't until the fresh pasta appeared that I became a true Paulie's enthusiast.

A disclaimer: to my knowledge, my own gram never made fresh pasta. I called my father, Albert, to confirm, and he said the same thing. "I never saw your grandmother make fresh pasta, or my grandmother, and I was over here a lot," he said. (My parents live, and I grew up in, the house that my great-grandparents built after emigrating from Italy.) "They were in charge of gardening, canning, and preserving, but they never did fresh pasta. I think they were too busy raising a million kids."

I did have a lot of friends whose families made fresh pasta, and I envy the excitement and tradition of the process. I called my friend Liz Campbell, nee Giovannetti, and she explained, "The family tradition is to make ravioli one day a year and freeze it for Christmas Eve and Easter. My husband Robert and I are starting a business--a ravioli-making class--called Nonna Giovannetti's: A Ravioli Tradition." Liz continued, "My nonna was kind of mean so our slogan is "Makes one MEAN ravioli!" (Sorry guys, Liz is based in D.C. but I promise to take the class sometime and report back.)

Another friend, Mary Sinicropi, wrote in regard to my pasta-making inquiry: "I used to make fresh pasta and ravioli with my Grandmother Ceo. There was no machine--it was by hand! It wasn't any special time of year, just when she felt like doing so. She had this tiny, jagged-ended cutter to cut the ravioli or to make thicker linguini noodles. My favorite ones were the orecchiette; we would use only our thumbs to make those. She had a special pasta board that we used, and when my daughter Jenna was small she got her own board and was allowed to make some, too!"

So while fresh pasta isn't part of my family's childhood culinary tradition, I was able to enjoy it through friends, and the memories of watching these pasta-making sessions stuck with me into adulthood--as did the incredible taste and texture. When I found out that Paulie's was making and serving fresh pasta dishes daily, it didn't take long for me to get over there and give it a whirl. And just as I remembered, the fresh pasta's main benefit is in its ability to take on and showcase the flavors of the sauces in which they are served.

I have tried two of the three fresh pasta options offered at Paulie's, and look forward to digging into the third--a bucatini served with a tomato sauce. Spaghettis are my least-favorite pastas, so it's no surprise that I went in for the rigatoni and the canestri first. Canestri sometimes look a little like elbows, but they are thicker and deeper; sometimes they are shorter, and more closely resemble a basket shape. I have seen them both ways, and Paulie's are the shorter, basket kind. The canestri at Paulie's are served in a sherry cream sauce with shitake and crimini mushrooms, flavored with lots of garlic and sage. Between the richness of the sauce and the similarly textured mushrooms, the pasta could have gotten lost, but they stopped just short of the line for over-saucing ... for me, anyway. Everyone is different. Oh, and make no mistake--this dish is for true garlic lovers. It doesn't veer into vampire-battle territory, but the garlic is assertive.

On my next trip I ordered the rigatoni in Bolognese sauce. A combination of ground beef and veal cooked in a tomato-and-cream sauce is applied with a light hand over the tubes of rigatoni. The sauce holds tight to the ridges in the pasta, marrying the two firmly together, and unlike with the canestri I found the amount of sauce on this dish to be positively perfect. There was just enough sauce left at the end to sop up with a scrap of bread. If you need more than one piece of bread to catch the rest of the sauce, there is too much. Though I usually like a tomato sauce to be a little brighter and more vegetal, I found this dish transported me back to my grandmother's dining room table when Sunday dinners brought my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins together every week. I could almost hear her voice, in her strong Italian accent, urging me to eat more. "What! You tryin' to be skinny-skinny? Eat you supper!"

Do you want to know the best part about visiting Paulie's and writing this piece? The conversations I have had with friends and family since discovering the fresh pasta menu. It's a special thing, to remain so close to your ethnic roots and to have that reinforced by family and friends and their shared culinary memories. Paulie's simple, homemade pastas have given me a wonderful gift. On to the bucatini!

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Christina Uticone