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The Fresh Flavors of Italy Taste Authentic at Pasta Plus

By Tony Glaros

Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 17, 2002

Are you planning a meal run to Little Italy in Baltimore? If so, stop and use your noodle. You can trim the last 20 miles off your journey by eating at Pasta Plus instead.

The popular Laurel eatery, crammed unceremoniously in a strip mall shadowed by an Arby's and a car repair garage, has been surprising diners since 1983 with home-style dishes at reasonable prices. Last year, the establishment was one of four spaghetti houses nationwide featured on the Food Network's "Best of" show.

Three of us dropped in for dinner on a Friday evening recently, including a friend who had visited Rome not long ago. Not once on her trip to the Eternal City did she eat pasta "overpowered" by the sauce. I assured her she would not come away disappointed from Pasta Plus.

"The first thing you see when you walk in the main dining room is the imported wood-burning pizza oven whose dancing flames can comfort the soul."

The 90-seat dining room can quickly fill up on the weekends, but even when the line is long -- which is typically every Saturday night -- it moves quickly. The other good news: Owner Max Mazziotti opened a market and carryout next door a few years ago, which handles much of the overflow. Besides fresh pasta and sauce, the carryout offers rotisserie chicken, Italian wine, olive oil and cannoli.

The first thing you see when you walk in the main dining room is the imported wood-burning pizza oven whose dancing flames can comfort the soul. On earlier visits, I've enjoyed the focaccia, a white pizza with a hint of olive oil, rosemary and sea salt. Another winner is the calzone alla Siciliana, a turnover pizza with prosciuttini, mozzarella, sliced tomato and fresh herbs.

Mazziotti grew up in Abruzzi, along Italy's Adriatic coast. He fondly recalled his mother's passion for shaping lifeless slabs of flour, eggs and water. "I am most impressed by the way she made it by hand for the family nearly every day," he said.

"There wasn't a day she couldn't not have pasta." For many years, his mom fashioned the grand strands for Pasta Plus and Mare E Monti, the Bowie restaurant operated by his brother, Sabatino.

This particular night, we ordered a half carafe of white zinfandel and settled in. Although Pasta Plus offers wonderful appetizers such as bruschetta pomodoro -- toasted bread topped with diced tomatoes, peppers, basil and olive oil -- and a generous antipasto, we went directly to the house salad and homemade bread. The salad is a quiet, unassuming starter, a basic assemblage of tomatoes, carrots, lettuce and cucumbers. The crispness of each vegetable, along with the crunchiness of the bread, made it special.

For my entree, I ordered the seafood special, an abundant helping of crab, shrimp, clam and lobster on a bed of homemade linguine. What struck me was its freshness; if I closed my eyes, I was enjoying the local catch dockside in Cape Cod or Charleston. My wife selected the veal scaloppine with asparagus and linguine. The meat was succulent and seasoned perfectly. The asparagus was so fresh, we joked that a refrigerated 18-wheeler had hauled a crate of the tender shoots directly from the fertile California field to the kitchen door in the alley behind the restaurant.

Our friend chose the breast of chicken stuffed with fontina cheese and potatoes. After sampling a portion, we agreed that it was a delight, playing well with the flavor of the cheese. We also thought the brown gravy was a nice accompaniment. On other visits, I tried the timbale la teramano ($12.95), a melange of crepes, ground beef, mozzarella and tomato sauce. If you like eggplant, I also recommend the melanzane parmigiana ($11.95), eggplant baked with tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

You can't miss with other mainstays such as fettuccine Alfredo, cheese ravioli in a light tomato sauce and the manicotti. As unimaginative as it sounds, I've even waived the tomato and meat sauce, satisfied to hunker down with a dish of spaghetti sauteed with olive oil and garlic ($8.95). Simple is often sensational.

Our stomachs full, we debated whether to ask for the check and scoot next door to the ice cream parlor. It wasn't meant to be. We scanned the dessert list and decided to hang around. The zabaglione con frutta fresca (fresh fruit with Marsala wine) caught our eye; it was about as fine an ending to a meal I have ever had, and worth twice the $5.95 price. The house blend coffee was superior to anything I've had in a restaurant in years.

As we prepared to leave, our friend said she was an instant believer. "This is so homey, and the food is so simple and healthful," she said. "It warms you."

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