Mama Mia, Basta Pasta

All the cool kids are heading down to Mass Ave for fresh fusilli and giant paninis

Terrell Woods

The decor may be low-key, but the taste is high-impact.

Winter Root Vegetables & Tiny Ricotta Gnocchi at Upstairs on the Square: $20. Linguini with Meatballs at Bertucci’s: $12.25. Finding a scrumptiously satiating meal for less than 10 bucks: collegiate heaven.

Luckily for Harvard students, there’s no need to hop on the Red Line and head to the North End for fabulous fusilli—it’s just a matter of walking to Mather. Three blocks down the road, at 319 Western Avenue, an unassuming Italian joint is nestled in a nook where few Harvard undergrads venture. Facing the busy street, a fresh green storefront sign reads: “Basta Pasta Trattoria: Pizza Panini Pasta.”

Hidden in the midst of dry cleaners and convenience stores, Basta Pasta is a gem of a joint. Inside, seating is sparse, and the light-orange space is slightly cramped, but the decor remains cozy and charming. Posters of pasta types and Zagat reviews furnish the walls. A massive vintage print of a cartoon character feeding on spaghetti basks in bright colors. “Così si mangia a Napoli!” it reads. Translation: “This is how we eat in Naples!”

As I sit down for my first meal, I hope that restaurant delivers on its cartoon’s promise.

ABOUT A TRATTORIA

Basta Pasta Trattoria was opened in April 2005 by the Hoxallari brothers, Reno and Altin. Trained in Milan, Reno has honed his talents at some of Cambridge’s and Boston’s finest restaurants, including Bambara and Via Matta. According to Altin, the brothers have worked together at several restaurants in the past, including the Caprice Lounge.

“We have experience about the food,” Altin says. “And whatever we did there, we try to bring it here.”

The Hoxallari brothers infuse their culinary expertise into each dish on the menu. The pasta is made daily and is largely responsible for each day’s dinner rush. By five o’clock every night, the small kitchen-counter café witnesses a flurry of activity, while somehow maintaining the pleasant feel of a neighborhood establishment. Locals stand and wait for an open table during peak hours. Families, couples, and even police officers crowd the joint for hours—some coming for take-out, others staying for a sit-down meal.

“We rely on word of mouth. We don’t spend one dime on advertising,” Reno says. “If you have great food, people will find it.”

The Hoxallari brothers’ popularity and success is well-deserved. The menu, scrawled on a blackboard in pink and white chalk, is a haven for hungry students low on cash. With options ranging from Chicken Parmigiana ($7.95) to Wild Mushroom Risotto ($8.49) to Sautéed Calamari ($6.25), odds are Basta Pasta is serving whatever you’re craving. I order the calamari and expect the usual deep-fried artery-blocker. Instead, Altin surprises me with squid simmered in a savory tomato sauce with hints of garlic, capers, and olives. The dish is surprisingly ornate, served up with green garnish and flat bread.

The paninis on the menu cater to the tastes the pasta misses. Specialities include grilled ham and gouda, buffalo mozzarella and vine-ripened tomatoes, and herbed goat cheese and olives. No matter the combo, all paninis are deliciously priced at $6.25. A friend orders a sandwich with prosciutto, mozzarella, and tomatoes on ciabatta. It is enormous, hot, and crispy, a “preemptively pleasing” vision on a simple oval plate.

“Eat it?” he says. “I can’t even get my mouth around it!”

CRITICAL ACCLAIM

A self-admitted foodie, Kelby J. Russell ’09 gushes about Basta Pasta’s dishes. “It’s always worth trying the pasta, but they also have a different special every day that’s spectacular. And the homemade fusilli is fantastic.” But be warned: according to Altin, the fusilli goes fast–by eight o’clock, the kitchen runs out.

The pasta is served al dente; its taste is robust, dressed with the perfect amount of cream sauce and a sprinkle of fresh basil. I spend an extra dollar-fifty for the homemade fusilli with no regrets. Luckily, the portions are so large that unless you are particularly ravenous (or a football player), you’ll be sure to head home with enough left-overs to satisfy any drunken late-night munchies.

In addition to the praiseworthy pasta, the Hoxallaris also serve thin, crusty 16-inch pizzas ($11.95), salads ($4.75-6.75), and mini arancinis ($4.50)—a Sicilian speciality of fried rice croquettes, filled with creamy Fontina cheese. Although it’s not a personal favorite, the arancinis are definitely worth a try if you’re a cheese lover. Nothing on Basta Pasta’s menu exceeds $12—more than reasonable, considering that the food is created by culinary experts.

Despite the chefs’ fine-dining background, there’s a lack of formality that’s both warm and welcoming inside Basta Pasta’s doors. Russell agrees: “They care about the quality of the food without it being too formal or stuffy.”

“I really like going there because the two guys that started the place are really friendly and engaging,” says Megan E. Carey ’08, an early fan of the Hoxallari brothers’ restaurant.

The casual get-your-own-utensils-and-food atmosphere may appear more buffet than gourmet, but those who eat there know the truth: In the end, Basta Pasta is all about the food. The open-kitchen, situated directly behind the food counter, is the focal point of the restaurant. With its pizza ovens and stoves in view, customers can watch the Hoxallaris cook their meals as they dine.

With Basta Pasta just a short walk down Putnam St., Matherites ought to be congratulated for winning the housing lottery—but no matter where you live, it’s worth the walk. Cozy and relaxed, Basta Pasta delivers surprisingly fine cuisine to the average Joe without any of high-class eatery frills. Don’t expect any service: diners grab their own drinks from a soda cooler by the food counter. There’s no complimentary bread basket to speak of, no cloth napkins.

“The atmosphere is not fancy,” says Altin, “but what we are trying to do is good food, honestly prepared. Everything we make here is made from scratch—it’s worth it.”