The excitement I felt when I noticed Pasta Avanti's cheerful-looking storefront in downtown Anchorage a few months ago could be summarized in one word: panini.
From what I could glean, panini was one-third of Pasta Avanti's menu, with the remainder made up of pasta dishes and Caeser salad. Surely, the panini is one of the most marvelous culinary inventions that American culture has co-opted and reinvented for itself. Toasted golden on both sides in a special press, it's like a fancier, more cosmopolitan-seeming grilled cheese sandwich.
I finally got my opportunity to visit the downtown shop earlier this week. The decor is bright and contemporary, with high wooden tables and industrial accents. Black and white prints of Italy lined the walls, and country music somewhat incongruously played from behind the counter.
My first surprise was when I approached the register to order. "Have you been here before?" the cashier quickly inquired. I had not.
She launched into a set of instructions, which she's clearly repeated often before. To get the food, I learned, you select which ingredients you want assembled. The cashier handed me a slip of paper with boxes to be ticked off: pasta, panino or salad; marinara, alfredo, pesto or other sauces; meats and vegetables; cheese and other extras.
I stood looking from the menu on the wall to the slip of paper in my hand, asking her to repeat instructions -- how much of this or that was I allowed for a pasta versus a panini? It would have been frustrating, but the cashier was friendly and patient, and after much second guessing I settled on a panini with shrimp, mozzarella, pesto and greens ($9.95). For pasta, I chose angel hair with roasted red pepper marinara, roasted garlic and sliced meatballs ($11.90).
First, the panini.
Pasta Avanti -- what game are you playing? To be fair, Avanti calls their sandwiches "panino," and in Italy, I'm told, panino sandwiches aren't toasted. But at the very least, a panino or panini implies two slices of bread, preferably some beautifully chewy Italian variety, a ciabatta or a focaccia or other multi-syllable marvel.
What arrived at my table was a wrap. A round piece of flatbread, like what you'd expect to get with a gyro or shawarma, folded in half around my selected fillings. The flatbread had grill marks, but they were apparently cosmetic, because aside from the warmed-up shrimp the wrap was served cold.
If Pasta Avanti wishes to serve paninos that are so dramatically different than what's commonly meant by the name, it seems like something they should mention on the menu. Swallowing my disappointment -- no fancy grilled cheese for me -- I turned to the sandwich at hand.
As a wrap, it was a pretty good little meal. It came served in foil and plastic basket, so that it could easily be carried out the door. There was a generous amount of lemony, grilled shrimp, greens and creamy mozzarella.
The wrap was not bad. The pasta, however, was a bland, mushy bowl that couldn't be helped by the generous application of powdered mozzarella. Though I was dining in, it was served in a disposable container.
I had better luck on a second visit. The Caesar salad with grilled chicken ($10.90) was zesty enough, with generous slices of chicken breast and seasoned croutons. A fettucine with pesto, asparagus and Italian sausage ($11.90) was indulgent and garlicky, tempting enough that I stole a few bites at traffic stops on the way back to the office.
Pasta Avanti is a confusing place. It's probably the least Italian-seeming Italian restaurant I've been to. After ordering you can watch the staff grab little plastic bags of pre-cooked pasta, fillings and sauce from behind the counter. Everything is apparently pre-portioned out, to be warmed up and combined for my meal. That's fine, but there's nothing homey or comforting about the place, qualities I normally associate with Italian restaurants.
Disposable bowls, foil wrapping, a self-serve soda fountain but no coffee, let alone espresso -- Pasta Avanti seems to be more about fast food than Italian food. But it's inexpensive and the portions are generous, So if you're looking for a quick bite while running around downtown, or hurrying back to the office on a short lunch break, it's not a bad option.
Now if only they'd get a real panini press. That's Italian fast food I could really buy in to.
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Location: 302 G Street