Fornaio individual pizza (Marisa Nadolny/Special of the day)
Cacio e Pepe (Marisa Nadolny/Special for the day)
Homemade pomodoro sauce for sale (Marisa Nadolny/Special to The Day)
In 2019 I sang the praises of Grano Arso in Chester, an excellent Italian restaurant in a beautiful building in a quaint town. It was fairly new at the time but had already garnered praise in local and less local media. I have since requested dinner at Grano for most special occasions and it has yet to disappoint.
Now there’s even more to love at Grano’s sister operation, Gargano Pasta & Italian Market in Old Saybrook.
Launched by Joel & Lani Gargano, the same savvy team that made Grano Arso a destination, their new venture offers foodies many more ways to enjoy their own fresh Italian cuisine, and the ingredients that inspire it.
Want to make your own pasta dish at home? Le Gargano offers homemade sauces and freshly made pasta. On a recent visit, a very nice gentleman explained the process of making pasta and warmly encouraged us to explore the shop and let us know if you have any questions. (I left that day with a box of rigatoni, $8, and hope I can find the courage to do it culinary justice soon.)
If you’d rather let someone else do the cooking, the on-site café menu offers several dishes – salads, pastas, antipasti and sandwiches – which will give you a good introduction to what is served at Grano Arso. We decided to do a one visit meal and ordered one item from each section of the menu. If the Misticanza salad ($12) is all I could eat for the rest of my life, I’d probably be fine. Beautiful, lush lettuces are topped with shredded fennel, and it’s up to you how much of the lemon vinaigrette and Pecorino Toscano cheese to add on top. As a rule of thumb, I say a good salad doesn’t need dressing, but the lemony magic of dressing is too delicious to ignore and, like everything else, even better with the cheese sprinkled on it. And note that it’s real cheese, not the stuff of green shaker tins, and you can taste the difference.
For our pasta course, we went with the Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe ($16); that is, fresh spaghetti drizzled with pecorino cheese and black pepper (served with two slices of semolina bread). It sounds simple – pasta, cheese and pepper – but sometimes simplicity produces the most delicious results, and that’s certainly true here. Our portion had just the right amount of cheese to pasta ratio (read: it wasn’t dripping with cheesy butter batter) and the black pepper was a great accent to the perfectly cooked pasta.
Did we mix up the contexts a bit and add an order of Polpete (meatballs) to our pasta dish without red sauce? We have done it and we will do it again. The Gargano polpete is a mixture of pork and beef, served with a little light and simple tomato sauce and a little parmigiano reggiano. You get three medium sized meatballs for $13, and that was enough for two of us with leftovers. Sure, they’re so tender, chewy, and flavorful that one is inclined to ignore a quickly filling belly and just keep eating.
We loved all of the above, but the Italian beef sandwich ($18) was what we enjoyed the most afterward. Consider the ingredients: sliced sirloin, peppers and onions, giardiniera (an Italian-style relish), and spicy Calabrian chili on a fresh bun. Thinly sliced peppers and onions stay put and add a great crunch to tender beef; then, thanks to the chili, you get a decent kick of spiciness and a kick of flavor that puts an exclamation mark on the whole experience. It’s a great sandwich, unlike any we’ve ever tasted, but is it great at $18? Maybe. It is also served with very tasty “pasta chips”, pieces of fried pasta with a good sprinkle of black pepper, homemade.
On another trip, we created a sort of lunch out of some of the prepared entrees, including the spectacular caprese salad ($12 and a very generous portion). This hearty helping of sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese was summer perfection, and even better made into a sandwich with the semolina bread from the bakery—slightly crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside ($7). The accompanying sweet balsamic glaze is very good, but the natural flavors alone are well worth the price. Plus, tomatoes leave behind delicious juices that should be scooped up with the rest of your bread. Grab this dish now while the local tomatoes are still good!
We didn’t need much more food, but at the register I noticed a selection of slices of personal sized focaccia bread topped with garlic, cheeses and one topped with tomato sauce and a dusting of cheese – the fornaio pizza ($5). It’s a great take-out lunch dish that’s quite hearty and bursting with flavor thanks to the tangy tomato, a bit of garlic and seasonings, and some great cheese. Elastic focaccia is at least two inches thick and provides the perfect balance of moisture and light crispiness around the perimeter.
And yet, we have only scratched the surface. We have yet to sample the local cheeses and charcuterie that fill a window display; there are more bread and bakery options on the list; and somehow we didn’t order any coffee. It’s a good problem to have, as it will be an absolute pleasure to return to Old Saybrook to enjoy the many wonderful flavors of Italy at the Gargano Pasta & Italian Market. In the meantime, we’ll see if we can give this box of rigatoni the prep it deserves.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
Gargano pasta and Italian market
75 Main Street, Old Saybrook
Food: All things Italian, available in a variety of ways, including fresh pasta dishes, salads, sandwiches and antipasti from the cafe menu; baked goods and espresso; meals, side dishes, sauces and dry pasta to be prepared on site; and a wide variety of imported pantry items you didn’t know you needed, from olives, cheeses and mushrooms to hazelnut spreads, vinegars and lemon marmalade.
Vibe: Sweeping space with modern decor and a great layout; beautifully arranged shelves and displays; and excellent indoor and outdoor seating options.
Service: Very welcoming and efficient, and the staff know their product well.
Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 7.30am-3pm; closed on Mondays
Price: The quality is there and it costs a bit; for example, $16 homemade pomodoro sauce and $8 boxes of freshly made pasta at the market. On the café menu, pasta dishes top out at $26; sandwiches are priced at $17 and $18; and salads average $13. Cannoli from the bakery start at $4 and a loaf of semolina bread at $7.
Credit Cards: Accepted
Disabled access: No stairs to enter; a large parking lot; and a very spacious interior.