Despite Diets and Changing Eating Habits Pasta Still Reigns in Restaurants and Homes
You don’t have to be a gourmet to love pasta. Plenty of us cozy up to microwaved noodles, sloughed from a can, tasting of comfort and nostalgia that blooms forth to warm, full bellies. Such dishes get no shade here. The beauty of pasta is that it can be anything from humble to highfalutin’ and still satisfy a range of senses.
With that in mind, we asked local eaters to shout out their favorite places (besides the couch) to indulge in platters of soul-satisfying, carb-a-licious pasta and followed the trail across the county.
A flood of responses hailed Manalù Italian Restaurant near Westview Promenade. The name merges letters from chef/owner Marco Pontecorvo’s name with that of his daughter, Naomi, and wife, Lucia. Fans appreciate that family members are always on hand. If Pontecorvo is not cooking, he’s probably chatting with patrons in the dining room. He says both fresh and dried pasta deserve room on the table, depending on preference or the type of sauce. “Pasta is always good, if you cook it right,” he says. For him, that means “al dente” (to the tooth), with a little chewiness.
About 70 percent of Manalù’s pasta is made fresh by Marco, who says, “I decided to make the most popular pasta that we usually make in Italy at Mom’s house. Cannelloni and manicotti is the one Mom used to make on Sunday. Pappardelle, fettuccine, cavatelli, ravioli, etc. … The ones she used to make when we had friends over. Let me tell you something, my Mom was so happy when it was time to make the fresh pasta. She loves to cook and so do I.”
Ravioli Mare e Monti is one of Manalù’s best sellers. It starts with handmade black ravioli stuffed with delicate lobster, then topped with tender scallops, sweet crab and briny shrimp, all dressed in a creamy tomato-white wine sauce with sun-dried tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms. The Spaghetti alle Vongole Bianco (spaghetti with white clam sauce) holds a special connection for Marco. “The smell of the vongole reminds me of seawater, the waves, the good time when I was back in Italy, with my entire family, always with good wine on the table, everyone talking, having fun. It reminds me of sunny days.”
ITALIAN AND ASIAN
In Middletown, Fratelli’s Italian & Seafood has its own die-hard devotees. Opened in December 2018, it achieved darling status with diners for standout crab cakes, hand-cut steaks and mountains of all-fresh, house-made pasta. The gleaming Rosito Bisani pasta machine has its own alcove across from the entrance. It churns out spaghetti, linguine, capellini and more, made from finely ground semolina flour. Fresh pasta, even for everyday favorites such as the baked penne, are part of Fratelli’s commitment to an all scratch-made menu.
General Manager Hathan Clark says it is unusual for a restaurant to go to such lengths, but insists you can taste the difference. He recommends the stuffed portobello dish, “because you get to try the pasta, [a whole] crab cake, seafood and the sauce.” It includes jumbo shrimp in lemony garlic butter. Another favorite, Fettuccine Gypsy, features sautéed spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and olives in white wine sauce.
Tsunami Ramen & Tapas gets high marks for its noodle-centric core and inspirational backstory, launching and thriving during the pandemic lockdown. Moo Rung, co-owner with Pong Chan, is a third-generation restauranteur with a hand in Frederick’s Lazy Fish sushi and Sumittra Thai. He shares, “I’ve been in the food industry all my life. My grandpa opened a noodle shop in Thailand and my dad was the next generation. He took over the business but I moved here.”
Now channeling Moo’s personal passion for ramen, Tsunami offers 11 variations, including vegan/vegetarian selections, with plenty of room for flexibility. The noodle component can be curly or straight, with or without egg, made with earthy whole wheat or refined white flour. “It depends on what you want,” says Moo. “Some noodles are softer or chewier, some absorb more broth.” The Spicy Miso Sapporo, Moo’s favorite, is braised pork belly, tender egg noodles, corn and mushrooms, paired with a perfectly jammy poached egg. For best take-out quality, he advises re-warming the broth separately then adding components to bring up to temperature.
On weekends, diners can try kale-flavored noodles imported from Japan. There’s even a cold variety, Chuka Ramen, served with traditional toppings but no broth. It is dressed in a savory sesame peanut sauce that Moo describes as perfectly refreshing.
Cucina Massi is Frederick Magazine’s 2021 “Best New Restaurant” and the current incarnation of Nido’s, a downtown staple since 1987. Dante and Massimo Liberatore are the father-son duo entrusted with its legacy. “We realize that we had a reputation to uphold and took great pleasure in taking on that responsibility,” says Massimo. The place has a new look and updated recipes but remains a go-to spot for piles of pasta. And, yes, the addictive garlicy white pizza is still on the menu.
Fans revel in Cucina Massi’s Capellini Caprese, with savory sausage and tomato in a creamy pink sauce, topped with fresh mozzarella and basil or the Spaghetti alla Carbonara, a rich marriage of silky egg and parmesan cheese. Red sauce lovers can even order a to-go container of that signature creation. And, while it’s not on the regular menu, Massimo says his favorite pasta to make is gnocchi. “They’re delicious and I just have so many fond memories of making them with my grandmother and my family. She passed away in February of last year, so I have a soft spot for homemade potato gnocchi.”
AROUND THE REGION
Urbana’s own bright spot for pasta is Mangia e Bevi, led by chef/owner Gianvito “Vito” Cinquepalmi. Born in Mola di Bari in Italy’s Puglia “boot heel” region, he channels family experiences—his grandmother’s bakery, his father’s olive groves and hand-made pasta fashioned by his mother—into a substantial menu. That includes baked dishes like meaty lasagna layered with delicate house-made pasta sheets and rich béchamel sauce to toothsome penne bathed in cognac cream with bacon, smoked mozzarella and radicchio. Mangia e Bevi’s Ravioli al Pistachio is a unique pairing of porcini mushroom-filled pillows topped with buttery pistachio and golden saffron cream sauce.
Coal Fire Pizza’s Baked Crabby Mac and Ragin’ Reef’s Wicked Pasta each get a shoutout, as do favorites at Il Porto, Emmitsburg’s Carriage House Inn and Middletown’s Tapia’s on Main. For those who’d rather cook for themselves, Juliet’s Italian Market offers a selection of imported pastas that pair well with its fresh, hand-made mozzarella. Steps away, the Pasta Palette offers a mind-boggling array of pasta in vibrant colors and shapes, boasting flavors like lemon-herb, sriracha and chocolate.
And for those who must eschew gluten, all is not lost. Impasta in Damascus is a fully certified gluten-free facility open since November 2020. The production facility/outlet offers portions of hand-rolled, celiac-friendly pastas and raviolis that stand up to glutenous versions in texture and mouth-feel. They also sell small-batch sauces, full lasagnas, meatballs and desserts, all sans gluten.
Now, let’s eat!