“Al dente or die” is the motto of Saint Pasta, a new food truck run by two guys from Jersey. Racan Alhoch and Joe Cetrulo are from the north part of the Garden State, Prospect Park and Morristown, two towns in the outer shadow of New York City. Cetrulo is the cook of the two. When it comes to pasta, they know what they want.
“Nobody cooks pasta al dente,” Alhoch says not only of the metro Phoenix scene, but of their experience eating on the West Coast. “They cook pasta a little, and it’s too soft.”
Their food truck got going about a year ago, though it just had its opening bash two weeks back. It is a newly painted black and mostly white truck with a crowned, hooded skeleton holding a bowl of noodles. “Jersey-Italian” the truck reads. “#AlDenteOrDie.”
Al dente describes the pasta texture that people into pasta prefer. It isn’t a single texture, but a range, as the phrase means different things in different places. In Campania, where people like pasta minutes shy of what most box instructions would deem done, pasta may have a thin, firm interior that most outsiders would consider undercooked. This is the raw end of al dente’s spectrum, the one that gives the tooth the most resistance. On the more cooked end, this last slight interior hardness has been cooked almost to softness but not, leaving more of a springy chew than any real firm resistance.
Saint Pasta is closer to the latter. Alhoch and Cetrulo cook Pasta Rea noodles out of north Phoenix, a craft shop that uses just flour and water in the southern Italian style. Cetrulo cooks rigatoni so the thick tubes have a hearty chew. Spaghetti kinks and knots, each strand filled with bounce.
Sure, it’s hard to cook in a superheated truck. Operating in this environment for hours cooking food with an error margin as thin as a line of angel hair, well, that’s last-level, final-boss pasta cooking right there.
But only if it works, of course.
Saint Pasta has four core pastas: pomodoro, vodka sauce, Amatriciana, and aglio e olio. “The pastas we make at the truck are not Italian,” Cetrulo says. “They are purposely Italian American.”
What he means is that each is tweaked so that it has progressed from its Old World origins, fitting for a young chef who grew up working in his dad's restaurants in New York and New Jersey.
Amatriciana, a pasta blending tomato and guanciale, skips the guanciale for pancetta. Aglio e olio, a spartan spaghetti of garlic and olive oil and maybe another small ingredient or two, cuts hard against the grain with an addition of butter. And vodka sauce? American to its red-and-white core.
Standing on the street outside Saint Pasta, vodka sauce cakes the furrows inscribing rigatoni. The sauce is blush but on the red side, with just a little bit of cream, and a strong, even garlic intensity imbued all the way through. There is no sharpness or bitterness to the garlic, just its best low-zing qualities elongated by mellow heat. Snow peas provide color, softness. Tomato chunks are a nice touch, too.
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Like the vodka sauce, the aglio e olio has a low current of heat from pepper flakes. The noodle heap is topped with bread crumbs touched with lemon zest almost unnoticeable. They add a dimension of crunch, and are one of the great unheralded pasta ingredients. Once again, the garlic comes in nicely, unbitter but with the kind of full personality that reminds you it began its life in the dark soil.
In addition to pasta, Saint started out with chicken cutlets, eggplant, and sandwiches. These have been nixed, and now all that remains is pasta, the focus narrowed to the good stuff. In addition to the core four, there will be rotating specials. With the warmer days here and ahead, the Jersey boys are thinking about a coastal special to open the run, maybe something with blue crab.
If you dig pasta, check out Saint. But be prepared for two things. Pasta alone is just north of $10. And you might need to order two bowls, as the truck’s portions are small. But, at the same time, forget the truck. What these guys are serving is good by restaurant standards.