There really is a pastaio at Pastaio. She is Lisa Stanko-Mohen, and she makes the pasta—which is what a pastaio does, in Italian. She and her husband, Brian Mohen, opened this personal statement of a restaurant in October 2011, expanded into the vacant storefront next door six months later, and more recently took over another adjacent space, which they didn’t put to immediate use.
Every day, Stanko-Mohen makes her own mozzarella, burrata and pasta—everything from linguine to orecchiette. Each week she changes much of the menu of 8 to 10 appetizers as well as the preparation of many of the roughly equal number of entrées, which always include a salad, pastas, and a few fish and meat dishes. The primary constants are her fluffy whipped ricotta gnocchi (in a pecorino-Parmigiano broth with fresh herbs, on one of my visits) and what the menu terms Our World Famous Meatballs with Pomodoro Sauce.
World famous is stretching it. But these big, tender orbs—made with ground brisket and short rib from Pat LaFrieda, house-made bread crumbs, basil, parsley, eggs and milk, and simmered in a fresh-tasting pomodoro sauce—deserve to be at least Monmouth County famous.
It adds up to a lot of work, but this pastaio is used to it. A mother of five, Stanko-Mohen decided to go to culinary school “late in life,” she told me on the phone after my visits. After graduating from what is now the Institute of Culinary Education in 2007, she commuted from Spring Lake to jobs in high-profile New York spots like Fatty Crab and especially Eataly—the vast Italian food emporium owned by Mario Batali and Lidia and Joe Bastianich. In charge of supplying Eataly’s many shops and restaurants, Stanko-Mohen said, “I made 3,000 pounds of pasta a week.”
Eventually the commute got to be too much, so she took a job at Spring Lake Golf Club. “But I was working 65 hours a week, and I thought, If I’m going to work this hard, I might as well work for myself.”
The tone of Pastaio is set by a black, steel silhouette of a pig mounted on a bare brick wall. The other walls are a dark artichoke green that at night look nearly black. Striped tea towels serve as napkins, and attractive accents include small glass oil lamps and green glass vases holding a few fresh blooms.
Given the pastaio’s background, it’s odd that pasta was the least compelling component of dishes such as linguine and clam sauce (a boatload of tender New Zealand cockles with andouille sausage in a bright garlic, parsley and white wine broth), and orecchiette with braised rabbit and pigeon peas in a light tomato sauce.
Pasta also plays second fiddle to the hefty meatballs, both in appeal and on the menu. The entrée comes in two sizes: three meatballs with crostini for $21 or two meatballs in a big bowl of pasta for $26. (“Only a star football player could eat it all,” said Brian Mohen.)
If I didn’t know better, I would have thought these dishes were made with dried pasta. They lacked the distinctive texture of fresh pasta—the pleasant resistance when you bite into it, as well as the superior way sauce clings to it, becoming a little bit absorbed into the pasta rather than just coating it. Given Pastaio’s seriousness about pasta, I was surprised when a server plunked down a bowl of pre-grated cheese on the table.
Ironically, it is often Stanko-Mohen’s pasta-free dishes that excel, such as buttery John Dory fillets with saffron cream, or boneless duck-breast rosettes with beautifully caramelized onions and ethereal whipped potatoes. Her creamy polenta with spicy sausage and broccoli rabe is a must-have, while succulent short ribs with pearl onions and bacon in a demi-glace enriched with veal-bone marrow is as appealing as it is decadent. In late winter, the restaurant had perfectly fresh zucchini blossoms flown in from Italy. Their preparation was lofty: stuffed with an airy mix of ricotta and pecorino romano and flash-fried in a batter so light it endowed the blossoms with a delightful golden filigree. A sprinkling of capers added brine and crunch; swiping the blossoms through the plate’s creamy lobster mascarpone added depth and lushness.
Other dishes, though, are off-kilter. The orecchiette contained far too little rabbit. I can see why the fluffy, whipped ricotta gnocchi are a staple, but the broth they bathed in, made with rinds of pecorino romano and Parmigiano, was bitter and overly salty when I had it.
The otherwise short dessert list features at least 15 flavors from New York’s esteemed Il Laboratorio del Gelato. On one visit, the olive oil gelato (highly recommended) was drizzled with extra virgin olive oil from Frankies Spuntino in New York, as well as coarse Maldon sea salt.
Concomitant with prime, unassailable ingredients like these come elevated prices, and this is yet another hurdle the couple has created for themselves: $26 spaghetti and meatballs, $31 duck, $14 lime crème brûlée (excellent—but still). All lead you to expect a certain level of service—and there the restaurant can fall short. On one visit we were asked to hold onto our cutlery between courses. We ordered our meatball entrée with pappardelle, but received linguine. One meal began with terrific focaccia topped with pomodoro sauce and mozzarella. The next visit, not even bread was brought to the table.
Worse was that no one was around to greet guests. One night the restaurant’s only other patron took pity on my group, which had been standing forlornly at the front desk for several minutes. He advised us to go into the kitchen to demand someone’s attention, as he had been forced to do.
By the time you read this, if things go according to plan, the couple’s second restaurant, called Moo, will have opened in the unused space next to Pastaio. The more casual spot will serve high-end burgers and shakes. Meantime, I hope they’ll turn their attention to ironing out Pastaio’s wrinkles.