Published November 21. 2013 4:00AM
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Paul's Pasta - a pasta shop and restaurant on Thames Street in Groton - transforms flour and eggs into bowls of comfort six days a week at lunch and dinner.
We arrived at the Groton landmark on a recent Sunday night via an under-construction Thames Street. Undaunted by the obstacle course of raised man-hole covers, we parked on the street beyond the restaurant and walked back, enjoying nighttime views of the Thames River along the way. The place looks as if it belongs in this historic, working-class neighborhood, with its amazing views of the river and the New London waterfront across the way, trains and ferries coming and going at all hours.
Half the year, the deck at Paul's affords diners a front row seat for the river's activities. This time of year, though, the chilly wind keeps the diners inside, within the small, well-worn but well-kept dining space.
We arrived around 6:45 p.m. and were told there would be about a 15-minute wait for a table. One other couple was already waiting outside. There really isn't much room to wait inside. The pasta counter and the small front dining area preclude loitering without impinging on already seated diners' personal space.
It had rained earlier, but thankfully the evening was dry and relatively warm. We enjoyed our time outside, watching through the spotlessly clean front window as ravioli were made, pasta sheets were cut to order, and salads and desserts were prepped for service.
Our 15-minute wait actually was closer to half an hour, so our appetites were nicely whetted for what was to come. We were seated at a two-top table, its frame an old treadle sewing machine, along the side wall of the front dining room.
Our young waiter, Paul, who turned out to be the son of owners Dorothy and Paul Fidrych, did not delay in greeting us and taking our beverage orders - my husband and I each chose water to save as much room as possible for pasta, but there is also a selection of wine and beer.
After putting off Paul once when he first returned to take our order, we decided on a small garden salad with gorgonzola ($3.99) and the paparadelle carbonara ($8.99) - wide ribbons of egg pasta with prosciutto and peas in a black peppercorn alfredo sauce - and a small Caesar salad ($3.99) and the night's special - shrimp, mushrooms, green pepper and onions in hot pepper butter served over linguini ($9.99).
Blissfully, all of the entrees at Paul's come in small and large sizes. Anywhere in the outside world, Paul's small would be considered a generous serving, a large soup bowl filled to the brim. A large at Paul's brings a daunting quantity of food. The table next to us was occupied by six young men, we guessed from the Coast Guard Academy, all thin and fit and looking as if they were used to being ordered to run up several flights of stairs carrying a classmate or two. They each ordered large portions and polished them off.
We stuck to the smalls.
Our salads arrived freshly dressed, the romaine in my Caesar cold and crisp, its dressing a perfect blend of garlic, olive oil and cheese, and the croutons perfectly salty and crunchy. My husband's garden salad was a bit watery, as if the lettuce hadn't been fully dried, but it was fresh and crisp, and came with some freshly shredded red cabbage and carrots, a couple of grape tomatoes, a sweet, tangy peppercorn dressing, and a mound of gorgonzola.
Our salads were gone mere minutes before our steaming bowls of pasta arrived, accompanied by a basket of crunchy garlic bread. The paparadelle was piping hot, a toothsome al dente that softened as it continued to cook in the creamy, cheesy sauce, dotted with pink prosciutto and bright, green peas. The egg pasta and the rich sauce, the salty meat and the bursts of green freshness from the peas made for a warm, filling, comforting meal.
The shrimp in that night's special was perfectly cooked, snappy and juicy, and paired well with the tender crisp green pepper chunks and the sautéed mushrooms. The hot pepper butter was really spicy, perhaps too much for some. But I enjoyed the play of heat, textures and pasta in the dish.
We took a slice of carrot cake ($4.75) home, where we enjoyed its dense, almost fruitcake-like texture and its bountiful cream cheese frosting.
We also took home a sampler of the cold pasta salads ($9.99), a pound of fresh fettucini ($3.79) and half a pint of pesto ($6.99). All of Paul's pastas and sauces are available for take-out.
We enjoyed the salads the next day for lunch. The spaghetti gazpacho tasted just like a gazpacho, fresh with cucumber, tomato, tangy vinegar and spice, while the fusilli with turkey cubes, broccoli, carrots and a sesame soy dressing was rich with umami flavors, crunchy vegetables and tender, twisty pasta. The last, pasta shells with chicken, broccoli, carrots and honey mustard dressing, was creamy, sweet and tangy, an unexpectedly delicious combination.
We completed our pasta trifecta that night with the fettucini and pesto. The pesto tasted like a burst of summer, its fresh basil, pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan cheese truly one of the culinary universe's greatest inventions.
All in all, if you want pasta, you can't lose at Paul's, where you can watch as it is cut for your order, where the prices are reasonable enough to bring the whole family, and where, by sitting down at a table that used to be a sewing machine or one that affords an amazing view of the river, you can take part in a Groton tradition.