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Cheap Eats

Prince in pauper's clothing

Email|Print| Text size + By Denise Taylor, Globe Correspondent
July 14, 2005

The customers that make Reno Hoxallari's day are the first-timers, because they have no idea what's about to hit them. The scenes usually unfold like this: Some passersby wander into his new, tiny, storefront restaurant, Basta Pasta, in Cambridgeport. They spy the self-serve drink fridge, the walk-up counter, the basic tables, the cheap prices, and the pizza oven. Reasonably, they assume they've found yet another dull pizza shop. But as they scan the chalkboard menu for meatball subs and eggplant parm, the game tilts. Questions begin to fly, like "What's a panini?" "How's the white risotto with goat cheese and prosciutto?" "Really, your pasta is homemade?"

It gets better. As the plates arrive, "oohs" and "ahhs" flow as if Hoxallari were setting off fireworks. Eight-dollar entrees turn up as prettily plated as haute cuisine. Appetizers sport sprigs of fresh herbs. Sides arrive drizzled with pesto. Sure, you yank your napkins out of a tabletop dispenser here, but the cooking is white linen all the way.

What's going on is the culinary equivalent of a prince in pauper's clothing. Hoxallari, an Albanian transplant, spent the past 10 years honing his craft in Milan and at local fine restaurants. Besides gigs at hot spots like Bambara and Via Matta, he served as sous chef at Caprice and the Salt Box in Ipswich, and then ran Brutole in Danvers. Now, with his brother, Altin, he's opened his own place in the sub shop digs he can afford. But he hasn't changed his cooking a bit. Everything is fresh, from scratch, and made with precision. Coming up with fantastic specials like braised fennel salad with buffalo mozzarella and pesto ($7.95) is still a regular part of his day. His creations just go for less now, due to the low rent.

"I was taught by some very strict chefs, where if I was going to do it wrong, they'd throw it up against the wall," he says. "So if I'm going to do things right in their restaurants, why shouldn't I do things right in mine?"

What Hoxallari gets right is nearly everything, from the crispy-crusted mini arancinis (rice balls) oozing nutty Fontina cheese ($3.95) and true Caesar salad with homemade croutons ($4.95) to the pastas, paninis, and even the burger with fries.

Chicken gorgonzola with walnuts on fresh gemelli pasta ($9.95, plus $1.50 to upgrade to fresh pasta) had just the right amount of this addictively pungent cheese. Aglio olio ($6.95 plus $1.50), fresh fusilli pasta with parsley, garlic, and olive oil, was a delight sassed up with hot chilies. The risottos achieved just the right bite, and the white risotto -- topped with rosettes of prosciutto, little clouds of fluffy goat cheese, and a touch of lemon thyme ($7.95) -- in particular, was a dish to purr for.

Paninis come every which way, with luxury toppings like tangy lemon aioli (mayo), caramelized onions, and fine meats and cheeses. Especially good was the prosciutto panini with buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, and tomato, on herbed ciabatta bread ($5.95). The 16-inch pizzas include true Italian classics like the margherita ($8.95), but the six-year-old with us went for pepperoni and sausage ($10.95), which had a promising thin crust but was soggy. It's likely the less Americanized pies are better, but our kid critic gave his slice a tomatoey thumbs up.

Other snags were minor. The house iceberg salad ($4.25) was fresh but forgettable. Pasta puttanesca ($6.95) was so overly spicy it could moonlight on a Thai menu. And though two members of our party enjoyed the meatballs -- and we all loved the fresh pomodoro sauce ($6.95) -- I and another diner longed for more coarsely ground meat.

The big surprise, though, was the burger, one of a few non-Italian cameos on the menu. This chuck-and-sirloin 8-ouncer ($5.95) is formed upon order, flash pan-fried in olive oil and garlic to seal in juices, then flame-grilled to taste. Simply put, it was great, as were the hand-cut fries and the homemade dill pickle on the side. There's no dessert. With all the other cooking going on, Hoxallari has no time or space for it, and he's too much the perfectionist to serve someone else's. Good for him.

BASTA PASTA

Cuisine: Italian

Address: 319 Western Ave.,, Cambridge

Phone: 617-617-6672

Hours: Mon-Thurs 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun 3-11 p.m.

Prices: $4.25-$11.95.

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