Metro Phoenix has become a great pizza town but remains a great pasta desert. Truly standout pasta is elusive, found at just a few new-classic spots. These places drip technique, attention to flour, and knowledge of pasta cultures old and new. Early this year, though, a promising new player burst onto our pasta scene.
That player rolled up in a black-and-white food truck painted with a skeleton in religious vestments, a team of two young-ish guys from North Jersey talking smack and twirling spaghetti. From the start, they blitzed Instagram with a hysterical, in-your-face bonanza of memes, action shots, and general braggadocio.
From the start, Saint Pasta canonized theirs as our best.
But many of the rave reviewers were eating noodles that had been shipped across time and space via online delivery services. This violates a basic truth of pasta: Pasta is best the heartbeat it is finished cooking. Any acolyte of the Italian noodle knows that a few minutes’ lag between doneness and eating is death. For this reason and a few others — one being how could anyone possibly serve A-plus noodles out of a hot, cramped truck? — a lot of the hype felt cardboard.
So recently, I stopped in for a few meals at Linger Longer Lounge, where Saint Pasta dug in this fall after ditching its wheels. I had visited the truck before, and the pasta was pretty good, but here Joe Cetrulo and Racan Alhoch were finally cooking in a setup suited for the tier of pasta they have been promising.
Within 20 minutes, a bowl of spaghetti carbonara was set on the bar. And I forked in to see how competently these kids are noodling with pasta.
That bowl had roots in 2011, when Alhoch and Cetrulo first met outside Cetrulo’s father’s restaurant, Sirena, on the beach of Long Branch, New Jersey. Within a few years, Alhoch, having grown up plying dough in pizzerias, was working at Sirena. Cetrulo has cooked in his family’s red-sauce joints in the Garden State; he has also knocked out brief stints at places like Coppa (Boston) and Aurora, a restaurant in Capri, Italy. Three years ago, Alhoch moved from New Jersey to Arizona. Last year, Cetrulo followed him. At Saint Pasta’s present nook, the two friends are the only souls in the kitchen.
Cetrulo is the pasta guy, cooking up to 18 at once. Alhoch oversees cutlets, cutlet sandwiches, pizza, garlic knots, and zeppoli — meaning everything else.
On the spectrum between Italian and Italian-American food, theirs is closer to the latter. Though there are classic Italian pastas like carbonara and cacio e pepe, and though these are often given a strictly classic treatment, there are usually a few Jersey touches, in part because these dishes have sluiced into Jersey Italian cooking. But still, some Saint Pasta elements are purely Italian-American, like vodka sauce and chicken Parm. They, too, get a few smart, Saint-specific touches.
Anyway, in the jovial rakish dimness of Linger Longer Lounge, your meal comes all at once.
Fried and then baked in oil, garlic knots come on a metal tin slick with an oily slurry jammed with Parmesan cheese and chopped garlic. The warm caress of this sauce elevates the densely doughy knobs, making them about as good as garlic knots can be. “Fried pizza” draws flavor from a raw sauce of California tomatoes. Poofs of deep-fried dough are crowned with a neat crimson smear, torn basil set on top. Bites are bready but airy but soulful — a glorious bar snack.
Before, during, or after pasta, you’ll want chicken cutlets.
You can add sliced, hand-breaded cutlets to pasta, just like you can add cool ricotta. I might be in the minority when I say that these add-ons subtract from the textures of the pasta, the ricotta melting and miring Saint’s nuanced sauces, the cutlets a little weighty and drying. (Other people seem to like both.)
The best move, in my opinion, is to eat your cutlets as chicken Parmesan.
The chicken Parmesan cutlet at Saint Pasta is masterful. A deep-fried cutlet spans its metal tin like a meaty sail. It is sheathed in house-made bread crumb mixture that is half panko, the blend scented with lemon, garlic, onion, Parmesan, and Pecorino-Romano. Encased around a juicy cutlet, a landmass of chicken pounded flat but not thin, that breading has a mild crunch, its goodness morphing into the greater goodness of the cutlet. Stippled with parsley, molten with two kinds of cheese, this is the rare chicken Parm where sauce stars, the fruity valences of tomatoes optimized by garlic cloves, basil, cooking time, and cooking skill.
This tomato sauce, a pomodoro, appears again in the pasta section of the menu. Saint offers close to a dozen pastas.
The signature might be the pomodoro. The bowl is sauce and noodles, all stewed tomato happiness and no decorations. Like all their pastas, the spaghetti for pomodoro comes from Pasta Rea of north Phoenix, an artisan that provides Saint with fresh (extruded) pasta crafted from semolina flour, water, and pepper. This is key.
When you fork up a red-slick tangle of spaghetti and chomp in, there is the luscious, garlic-twanged spirit of tomato. Yet the noodle also has an assertive chew, a spunky spring, a bite worthy of a top-level pasta. This narrow zone of texture is hard to achieve with a fresh pasta (rather than boxed dry pasta). Using an eggless wholly semolina noodle not only widens the textural bullseye, but helps to make it appear in the first place. That pasta chew is the textural backbone to the voracious flavor of the sauce, the genesis of the warm magnetism, the “al dente” in Saint Pasta’s “al dente or die” motto, the starchy wellspring of the deep swagger.
And so in the bar’s dimness, near a DJ booth, sipping beer or cider, you might dig into a vodka sauce pasta with snow peas or aglio e olio with lemony bread crumbs. You might bite into chewy tubes rich with lamb Bolognese, a pasta a step away from classic Italian thanks to heavy cream (a Jersey touch), use of mascarpone and rigatoni instead of a longer noodle (a Saint Pasta touch), and incorporation of chile-spiked merguez sausage (a Cetrulo touch, born on the Jersey Shore in 2014, when he wanted to make a Bolognese that Alhoch, then a practicing Muslim, could eat). All these pastas are a bit disorienting given your setting: Linger Longer, Arizona. All are great.
You might even find yourself — like I did — over a bowl of heavily peppered carbonara. The 20th-century Roman classic of eggs, guanciale, and cheese has, in the Sainted version, the faint flavor of guanciale — pork jowl — imbued into thick, chewy spaghetti. It’s creamy, and not from cream but eggs added at the last minute. Guanciale shards have a crisp veneer, jiving with the noodles. The pasta is cooked nicely, channeling the simple satisfaction that World War II-era cooks sought when they invented it.
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Judging by an Arizona standard, this pasta is the work of a restaurant doing one of the top three or top five pastas in the area. It’s pretty damn good.
Judging by a New York or Italian standard, it is a capable version — though it could be a shade richer, and the wild electric fatty gamey beauty of that guanciale could bloom more deeply into each noodle’s hot soul. Saint Pasta — though its Jersey-bar-style pizzas are on target but a half-notch below the pastas, though its owners talk an avalanche of shit — is certainly one of the best places to eat Italian food in town.
Saint Pasta (inside Linger Longer Lounge)
6522 North 16th Street
Houses: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday (see Saint Pasta website or Instagram for current hours)
“Fried pizza” $9
Lamb Bolognese $16
Chicken Parmesan $12