There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Pasta Mia has built its considerable reputation on preparing dishes to order and preparing customers to accept the red-sauce house’s many limitations. Among them: cash only, no reservations, no substitutions, no bar, no seating until the full party arrives, and no wines by the glass other than the cheap house vino. Restaurants with significantly better pedigrees wish to God they could be so rigid.
And yet: Every day it’s open, Pasta Mia has a line of eager diners just waiting to suffer for their mountainous bowl of fusilli with tomato sauce. It’s a pasta house for people who like to be dominated.
For me, Pasta Mia has always been like the museums on the Mall: easily available, often attractive, but always ignored. My first visit, in fact, was this past weekend when I waited 45 agonizing, alcohol-free minutes for a spot in Pasta Mia’s cramped, dated dining room, where the framed prints of pasta and other Italian ingredients have been hanging on the walls so long that sunlight has bleached them out.
When my dining companion and I were finally granted access to one of the elevated tables, it was in classic Pasta Mia-style. A woman in chef whites handed us our menus, pointed to something up the short set of steps, and let us seat ourselves at a red-checkered two-top. It had the warmth of an all-out safety blitz.
The menu is divided neatly between one page of specials ($13-$19) and one page of “Pasta…Pasta…Pasta…” (all $15). None of the pastas are made in-house, and the vast majority of them are topped with one (sometimes two) of a handful of sauces: cream, tomato, spicy tomato, pesto, or a ragù alla bolognese. Aside from the cream version, I believe all of these sauces can be (in fact, should be) prepared well before opening time.
The bolognese that swamped my companion’s spinach ravioli looked like finely ground Hamburger Helper — and didn’t taste much more complex than that. The sauce was made more palatable when paired with the overcooked ravioli, which at least tempered the bolognese’s grainy, off-putting texture. My bowl of fusilli with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella was a swimming pool of pasta, cooked perfectly al dente but choking on its overly tart red sauce.
We took more pasta home than we ate, which is routine for anyone who dines here. It’s a point of pride and, no doubt, a significant profit center for Pasta Mia, which can justify its inflated prices with each bloated bowl of penne. It works the same for the joint’s starters, including this burial mound of chopped watery romaine that serves as the Caesar salad. It’s slathered with a garlicy dressing and topped with a shaker full of sawdust-like Parmesan, which left a harsh bitter taste in my mouth.
Maybe I missed Pasta Mia’s hey day, all those years ago when my predecessors in this chair used to rave about the place, but after this meal, I’m left with a sneaking suspicion: that Pasta Mia creates its own allure by purposely making you wait, even when empty tables are available.
The restaurant has routinely told its customers that its kitchen is too small to seat more people, but in my examination of the menu, I don’t see a whole of lot here that would require a la minute preparation, aside from boiling the pasta, which, if you’ll remember, they don’t even make in-house.