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Cheap, delicious pasta is justa what the taxman ordered

Taste
by: L.E. BASKOW, Justa Pasta multiplies its offerings with a mix-and-match menu of pastas and sauces, none of which will break the bank.

Taxes are due next month. Headlines shout every day that we're in a recession or soon will be. It costs more than $50 to fill my gas tank. And a loaf of bread is $4. We all could use a little relief.

To hell with $26 entrees and $10 cocktails.

How does a decently priced plate of pasta sound? Justa Pasta (1326 N.W. 19th Ave., 503-243-2249, www.justapasta.com) will treat your wallet with kindness. Justa Pasta prices are very reasonable, especially considering the quality of ingredients used at this friendly little cafe - antibiotic- and hormone-free meat, and local produce that's mostly organic.

How fair are the prices? You'll pay just $5.15 for a small portion of the bucatini (a spaghettilike hollow noodle) with marinara sauce, and $11.95 for regular-size braised greens and Pecorino ravioli with beef Bolognese. Salads range from $4.25 to $8.25.

I recently visited for lunch and had a small order of tagliatelle (a wide, flat noodle) with beef Bolognese and a small Caesar salad. I was stuffed, and the bill for my large lunch was $11.25.

Even more important than price, the food is good. The basic mixed-greens salad with sherry vinaigrette is simple and refreshing, with the right balance of vinegar to oil; it's a fitting accompaniment for a big bowl of carbs.

My favorite salad is the garlicky Caesar with fat croutons, young, crunchy Romaine lettuce, and a generous grating of Parmesan. Spinach salad with crumbled feta and pine nuts is another fine choice.

But pasta is the star at Justa Pasta. And ravioli is the specialty. Try the three-cheese, chicken sausage or the regular special of butternut squash. The bright orange filling is naturally sweet, and topped with grated Parmesan and freshly ground pepper, it provides a burst of healthy flavor.

Vegetarians have nothing to complain about here. Justa Pasta's deep green basil pesto is a nice version of the earthy, rustic sauce. And the marinara is a zippy rendition of the classic Italian gravy.

Justa Pasta's beef Bolognese is a lighter take on the meaty sauce; it lacks the depth of a really fine Bolognese, but I like that it's not so heavy so I can eat more of it.

You can mix and match most of the noodles and sauces on the menu. If you don't see the exact combination you want, just ask.

That the pastas are terrific should be no surprise. Justa Pasta started out as a wholesale pasta company in Hood River in 1991. In 1994 it moved to Northwest Portland, closer to the restaurants it supplied with fresh pasta.

Four years later its owners opened the cafe, eventually closing the wholesale business and expanding the restaurant. They continue to sell uncooked noodles, including the ravioli, to go.

Even with the extra space, there's often a line at Justa Pasta, especially at lunch. But it moves quickly. Order at the counter, take a seat and they'll deliver the food to your table. As long as no one is waiting for a seat, feel free to linger.

There's a decent selection of mostly Italian wines by the glass or bottle and a short list of desserts, too. I recently had a scrumptious, crumbly, oatmeal chocolate chip cookie with my coffee.

If you're feeling a little battered and blue by economic woes, and you'd like a treat, visit Justa Pasta. You'll even have money left over to pay your electric bill.

Justa Pasta is open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday, and for dinner 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.

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One thing we Portlanders are justly proud of is our tap water. It tastes really good. So good, you shouldn't mind paying $1 for a glass of it. Certainly not when that dollar goes to UNICEF's Tap Project.

From March 16 through March 22 (World Water Week) several Portland restaurants are joining restaurants across the country in accepting $1 donations for glasses of tap water at their restaurants.

The money will go directly to UNICEF's Tap Project, which supports programs in more than 150 countries designed to improve access to safe water and water sanitation facilities. According to UNICEF, more than 5,000 children die every day as a result of waterborne diseases.

We take safe drinking water for granted in Oregon, but all over the world, there are people without access to clean drinking water. A child can have free drinking water for 40 days for every dollar raised during Tap Week. Last year, in New York City alone, more than $100,000 was raised for the Tap Project.

The list of Portland restaurants participating this year is long and includes Andina, 23Hoyt, Biwa, Apizza Scholls, Lauro Kitchen and many more.

For information about the project or to donate directly, visit www.tapproject.org.

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