Joe Bruno’s formula for Pasta Nostra in South Norwalk is simple. Fresh pasta, high quality ingredients, and respect for source. This meticulous attention to detail and devotion to perfection has kept it a Fairfield County mainstay for well over two decades.
To understand how Chef Bruno can maintain this vigilance, we visited on several occasions, spending time in the upstairs kitchen, a basement prep area, in the dining room and even peering into a few cave-like basement rooms where the Italian olive oil and cases of wine are stored. But to truly grasp the soul of this place, we spent most of our time there with an Italian pasta machine in a basement prep area, where the restaurant’s fresh pasta is prepared with care.
The weekly pasta-making ritual is not only the source of its name, but also a reflection of Pasta Nostra’s approach. Once a week, every week, 60 to 90 pounds of pasta is made from scratch. This practice sets the tone for the week at the restaurant.
The process begins with Pasta Nostra’s sous chef Augustine, who has been drafting the menus with Chef Bruno for the past six years. Ingredients, several signature dishes, and occasionally whim, dictate the pasta shapes. A shipment of fresh clams? Linguini. A crate of maitake? Pappardelle. An abundance of fresh and aged cheeses? Agnolotti or ravioli. And so on.
With the menu set, the process moves to Marcelo, a 12-year veteran of Pasta Nostra and the man responsible for making the pasta and desserts for the past six years. Each Wednesday, beginning around 10 a.m. and lasting about five hours, Marcelo begins the task of producing anywhere from 60 to 90 lbs of pasta, which can power the restaurant for an entire week. Taking into account variables such as humidity and menu, Marcelo retreats to a basement prep area with a list of pastas and his ingredient arsenal: flour, water, eggs and a pair of mixers. And with that, the weekly pasta-making ritual commences.
A red linguine has its humble beginnings with cayenne, semolina, eggs, water and tomato paste. It spends time in a closed mixer for about 20 minutes before being transferred to an adjacent mixer where it is rolled out. The first foot of fresh pasta is immediately tossed aside. Imperfectly shaped, it will be recycled into a later batch. The rest of the dough is rolled out and stashed in a plastic bag until it can be run through a pasta cutter. Each pasta has a different blade, and after the pasta is cut and moved to its respective tray, it is then covered and refrigerated until dinner service.
The menu changes every two weeks or more accurately, when inspiration strikes. When I recently asked Bruno about this, he reflected, “New things are over-rated, and when you get down to it, there is nothing new anyway. However, the few dishes I have created over the years are always the result of an ingredient. My Linguine with Uni and Pistachios came from thinking about Sea Urchin and how to pair it with pasta without being so literal about it as they are in Italy.”
A few of the most requested dishes, including Clams and Linguini and the Agnolotti with Sausage and Peas, rarely come off the menu. Although the soul of Pasta Nostra is obviously pasta, it seems one of the most popular dishes is not semolina-based at all. It is, according to Chef Bruno, their green salad. Inspired by a visit to Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in the eighties, Joe found, “the simplicity of her dressing sheer perfection, and she was tossing each salad with naked human fingers–no tongs or hands to bruise the greens. Pasta Nostra developed its own dressing and hand-tossed style that leaves the salad unbruised and vibrantly fresh tasting."
Although we arrived to understand the weekly ritual of making pasta, we found rigor throughout the Pasta Nostra experience, a reflection of Joe Bruno’s tireless vision; an affinity for simplicity and excellence without sacrificing effort or quality. Pasta Nostra is soulful Italian cuisine, with a mindful Bauhaus execution. An assemblage of well-sourced ingredients, clean flavors and technique, unencumbered by the trappings of complexity.