Talk about quirky. To even find the Pasta Company, it would help to know where the better-known No Way Jose Cafe is (across the alley), and if you don't know that, you'll wander around the alleys of Federal Hill -- as we did -- before you find 1041 S. Marshall St.
The quirkiness doesn't stop at the door, either. The Pasta Company looks like a throwback: 1960s-ish coffeehouse, with posters, one light bulb and one very friendly waiter, Steve. His good will, and the basic but decent food, make dining at the Pasta Company a pleasant, down-to-earth experience.
By way of 1990s updates, the menu promises an "interactive" dining experience. What that really means is that you get to choose which sauce to have on which pasta and what toppings to add to the mixture. We're not sure that's really interactive. In fact, it reminds us of a time when our parents told us not to mix our peas, hamburger and mashed potatoes together. Now, however, you can.
Anyway, the Pasta Company's menu features eight sauces, including marinara, Alfredo and clam. There are 12 pasta shapes, ranging from spaghetti to bow ties to basil tomato linguine. And finally, there are two dozen toppings, including fresh vegetables, chicken, shrimp, mushrooms and meatballs.
A generous helping of pasta and sauce costs $8.95. Toppings are extra, with prices ranging from 95 cents to $4.95.
Steve, the talkative waiter, covers the entire place: greetings, water, drinks, table settings, food, the works. Nonetheless, he takes time to serve a bottle of wine with a professional flourish, asking us to smell the cork and taste the wine before he pours, because he doesn't get to do it too often.
Somehow, he does everything else, as well: Bread arrives warm, drinks arrive cold, food arrives hot. Later, when the place has filled up, service slows down a bit, but not much.
And the food? It's good! An appetizer, fried calamari, was tender, its light batter mixed with lemon, pepper and just enough salt. Steamed mussels, another appetizer (there were three altogether), were simply prepared and presented -- steamed and poured onto a plate. But they were tender and good.
Every serving of pasta was cooked al dente (just enough). Each came with a lot of sauce, but everything tasted fresh. Marinara was pleasantly uncluttered by extraneous ingredients, giving the tomato and garlic plenty of room to speak to our taste buds.
The meat sauce was more meat than sauce to our taste, and so rather ponderous. Pesto, on the other hand, was terrific, with great texture. And the flavors of the ingredients -- basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and cheese -- were beautifully blended. Roasted vegetables were cooked just right.
The Pasta Company serves huge portions on small plates, like Army rations. There's no subtlety here, no panache, but since the restaurant doesn't seem to be trying for any, who cares?
Even if you take a laid-back stance, however, there are a few things that need to be fixed. One is dessert. We'd been told that the Pasta Company had "wonderful" cheesecake and tiramisu. Neither was available when we were there.
Coffee, which is fresh-brewed and tastes fine, is available only in high-test. We think the restaurant could get another pot and serve decaf, too. The "extra" cheese that comes to your table is Kraft in a glass shaker. That flavor-free condiment is not worthy of the delicious pesto or anything else on the menu.
And finally, there's the decor. The owners may not want to spend a lot of money on atmosphere, and we don't see any reason why they should. The place is clean and the low-cost operation keeps the prices down, but an extra light bulb or two would really help.
The Pasta Company
1041 S. Marshall St.
Hours: Open Wednesdays to Sundays for dinner only
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Prices: Appetizers $2.95 to $7.95; entrees $8.95 to $13.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *