Pasta Stranded?

Use Your Noodle And Head Over To Pasta Palmiti For A Fresh Take On Take-Out.

By Rebecca Cook

FORCED TO DESIGNATE one chef-d'oeuvre as the perfect food, I'd be hard pressed to come up with any comestible more worthy than pasta. This choice does hedge a bit, given the myriad combinations of ingredients that coalesce under the pasta umbrella.

Nevertheless, pasta is ideal on many levels: Low in fat and easy to digest, it's a nearly flawless source for carbohydrates. It comes in a wide variety of styles and shapes, ranging from stringy (spaghetti, linguini, angel hair) to tubular (rigatoni, penne) to fanciful (bow tie or butterfly). Sauces may be heavily laden with cream and butter, or instead consist of a fusion of fresh herbs and vegetables with just a splash of olive oil to hold them together. Pasta lovers can indulge their passion every night and never get bored, due to the endless possibilities.

Chow Scott Brayer, owner of Pasta Palmita, clued into this wealth of pasta potential and has struck pure culinary gold in the shadows of the Catalina Foothills. Featuring "Pastas of the World," Brayer has produced a restaurant that offers a cornucopia of dishes suitable for any occasion, whether it's dining out with a loved one or eating take-out at home with the kids. Located in the midst of a suburbia predominantly populated by professionals, Brayer has astutely assembled an eatery that offers a delicious and healthy alternative to the usual drive-thru fare to which many are forced to resort as they make their way home after a hard day's work.

If you don't have the time, the energy or the skill to whip up dinner yourself, Pasta Palmita provides a tempting alternative. In fact, the food here is so tasty and economical, you may never cook again.

Located in the Basha's shopping center at the corner of Sunrise Drive and Kolb Road, Pasta Palmita--with its limited indoor seating and primarily counter service--is not necessarily the place to go for a classically romantic evening (although if you bring the bubbly, the restaurant will provide the bucket of ice). If the weather cooperates, some outdoor patio tables are an option; but these, too, with inevitable parking-lot exhaust and perpetually gawking foot traffic, constitute questionable dining environs. Fortunately, Pasta Palmita excels at take-out, which admirably matches the needs of people on the go.

Brayer's pastas are divided into four categories: Italian, Far East, Southwest and nouvelle. Consider the pleasure of pasta with a traditional marinara sauce (meatballs optional); an exotic peanut "bow-Thai" pasta with chicken; the healthfully sweet garlic, shiitake and chicken pasta; or a delectable Mediterranean bow-tie pasta tossed with cream pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, pine nuts, chicken and feta cheese. These tempting morsels but skim the surface of all that Brayer has to offer. In deference to variety being the spice of life and all, Pasta Palmita also features an impressive selection of soups, salads and hot subs, as well as a list of party pasta portions that can serve up to 10 people.

On our first foray into Pasta Palmita, we selected at least one item from each of the four categories: pasta with marinara sauce plus the meatballs, the "bow-thai" chicken pasta, Teriyaki linguini primavera, Southwest chicken and linguini, and a triumvirate of wild mushrooms with angel hair.

The whole family dotted their plates with tastes of each, except for the lone vegetarian who was relegated to the delights of the mushroom pasta only. Each item had its fans, with the overall consensus being that there wasn't one bummer in the batch. Most popular by a nose was the Southwest linguini, tossed with a zesty red chile and sherry cream sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, and tender chunks of chicken breast. The balance of flavors in this dish--simultaneously spicy, sweet, smoky and faintly creamy--were extraordinary. Even the kids, who usually eschew anything complex, found the dish delicious.

The marinara sauce was imbued with the characteristically sweet, gentle nature of fresh, pureed tomatoes, and contained an intrigue of garlic, oregano and fresh basil. The hefty meatballs were pronounced "really good" by the children (who devoured them before the adults had an opportunity to take even a nibble). The mushroom pasta, with its subtle infusion of earthy fungi and fresh thyme, tickled the more mature palates; and the fiery Thai peanut sauce tossed with bow-ties, julienned carrots and chopped broccoli added a new dimension to the familiar childhood experience of peanut butter. Finally, the Teriyaki pasta, with its tender-crisp assortment of vegetables and dash of fresh ginger, was generally satisfying (though it suffered ever so slightly from its pasta being overcooked). All in all, it was a fabulous take-out meal, and we eagerly marked our calendars for the next night-off at Palmita.

For Round Two, we summoned an august gathering to partake in one of the restaurant's pasta party packages. Seven of the eatery's pastas may be ordered in mass quantities, in amounts designed to feed groups of either five or 10 people. To make a complete meal, a simple mixed-green or Caesar salad, in half portions or whole, can be added to your order with corresponding amounts of garlic bread.

We chose the cappellini Palmita as our main course: thin strands of angel hair mixed with fresh diced tomato, loads of sliced black olives, oregano, basil, thyme and finely grated parmesan cheese. Caesar salad satisfied the green requisite, and soup was ordered as an opener, with individual orders of garlic bread added.

Although Pasta Palmita packs all their to-go food in air tight plastic containers, there will always be the dilemma of keeping food in its prime if you don't happen to live close to the restaurant. By the time we reached our destination (some 20 minutes away), the large, 9-by-13-inch pan of pasta had cooled to the point where the large mass of grated cheese on top had congealed into a solid mass, a condition that gentle reheating did not ameliorate. In addition, the Caesar salad had begun to wilt under the weight of its dressing, and the soup had lost its steam, so to speak. None of this, of course, is the fault of the restaurant. I mention it only as a reminder that carting food away from its creative cradle can be a risky affair.

A house specialty at Pasta Palmita is the red bell-pepper soup, a smooth and elegant beginning to any meal. Light and creamy, it perfectly pays homage to the sweet, subtle nature of its signature ingredient. Conversely, the meatball soup is hearty--boldly seasoned and densely packed with nuggets of meat and chopped vegetables. Both were roundly scrumptious, and could be thoroughly enjoyed without the benefit of additional food orders.

The Caesar's dressing was similarly impressive; nicely infused with the robust flavors of garlic, Worcestershire and anchovies. Other salads at Pasta Palmita are also very good, with a lovely mix of fresh greens, vegetables and various cheeses. The dressings may be a little too heavy on the olive oil for some tastes, but we found this quite an enjoyable feature of the mild vinaigrettes.

Our pasta choice for the group, though, was mildly disappointing--especially compared to our knock-out first samplings. Unless you're a huge fan of black olives, the cappellini was studded with so many that they practically overwhelmed every other flavor in the dish. Furthermore, the dried herbs had not been thoroughly incorporated, which gave them a sere, grainy texture that was discernible with each bite and left several of us scrabbling for toothpicks afterwards.

The garlic bread--single, vertical rolls that are split, rubbed with garlic and broiled in a contraption devised solely for that purpose--is one of the highlights of any meal at Pasta Palmita. Each serving offers two pieces of bread, which may not be enough if you're working your way through a multi-course meal.

The only dessert offered at Pasta Palmita is tiramisu, which Brayer has sent in from a local bakery. It's a satisfactory enough ending to a meal, but certainly won't be the thing that keeps you coming back.

You'll come back because the food is delicious, the portions ample and the owner a genial host. If only Pasta Palmita had a drive-thru window; then it could truly break new ground in the evolving world of fast food.

Pasta Palmita. 6878 E. Sunrise Drive. 529-9557. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. V, MC, checks. No liquor, but you can bring your own. Menu items: $2.75-$7.95. Party pasta meals: $22-$45. TW

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