For a quarter of a century at South Norwalk's Pasta Nostra, it's been Joe Bruno's way or the highway and his is a road well-traveled. To sustain a restaurant in South Norwalk for as many years as Bruno has is no small feat, considering the revolving door of businesses that have long been representative of the area. Even more impressive, when one considers that in 1985, the entirety of Washington Street was headed for demolition.
The neighborhood was doomed, condemned, he muses. Nobody wanted this space. They all told me itd be knocked down, along with all the rest of the buildings on the street.
Never one to take much stock in the predictions or opinions of anyone, Bruno forged ahead. Subsequently, the area was rescued from the redevelopment (read: demolition) of the 80's , and Pasta Nostra became something that even Bruno hadn't counted on. He started Pasta Nostra with the intention of selling superior Italian food ingredients and exhibiting art in the unused portion of his retail space, with lunch thrown in for fun. But within months, hungry diners were flooding the store at midday. Then The New York Times showed up, dubbing him in its review as the Mies van der Rohe of the kitchen. The floodgates opened and Bruno found that Pasta Nostra was meant to be a restaurant.
"The restaurant was just supposed to be my toy!" he says now, with triumphant amusement. "All of a sudden, it became the focus and I became a chef. I honestly had no idea I could do this. It wasnt the plan at all."
Pasta Nostra is known today for artfully crafted, home-style Italian specialties made with ingredients Bruno purchases from small purveyors and Italian importers. Menu items include dishes his family has made for generations. The exhaustive wine list features 140 selections from largely small-production vintners. The kitchen goes through as many as 1,200 litres of olive oil direct from Panzano in Chianti every year. Prices, for some, are prohibitive, but Bruno flies on the principle that you get what you pay for. His 25 years in business show that customers are willing to ante up for a plate of handmade capellaci con zucca--a heavenly handmade butternut squash ravioli over the thinnest slice of prosciutto, drizzled lightly with sage butter among other swoon-worthy dishes.
But its not just the food that gives Pasta Nostra its unparalleled reputation. Its the engaging, if mercurial, owner himself. Want to make substitutions? Tweak the preparations to suit your own tastes or restrictions? Forget it. Don't try asking, for example, for butter as a substitute for the fragrant olive oil that arrives with your hot, crusty Wavehill bread...never gonna happen. One recalcitrant, tweak-seeking executive, who was eventually invited to leave the restaurant, issued a blustery, company-wide memo telling his employees that any receipt relating to Pasta Nostra would no longer be reimbursed. He copied Bruno on the missive. In response, the chef promptly printed the memo, had it enlarged to poster size, and posted it in the window of the restaurant like a badge of honor.While Brunos original business plan may have fallen by the wayside, today the walls of the restaurant are still adorned with the rotating works of painters and photographers that he takes an interest in. What also remains is Bruno himself, steadfast in the precise execution of his restaurants high standards, the unwavering dedication to the products he began with, and his set-in-stone views on how Italian food should be prepared and served. He continues to do business the way he sees fit. Take it or leave it.
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