Pasta Avanti serves this customizable panino sandwich ($9.95) containing your choice of one meat, one sauce and two vegetable choices atop a base of spring lettuce, fresh mozzarella cheese slices and flatbread. Fountain drinks are $2.50 apiece.
302 G St.
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday
$7-$10 per plate
It can be hard finding Italian food for lunch in Anchorage, since many local standbys don’t have lunch hours. When I heard of a newly opened eatery Downtown that might address the issue, I promptly gave it a try.
Pasta Avanti sits at the corner of 3rd Avenue and G Street, in a restaurant-heavy area of Downtown Anchorage: the Snow Goose Restaurant is across the street and it’s immediately adjacent to Urban Greens, with the Marx Bros. Café and Sacks Café and Restaurant within a block. Amid such dense competition, the restaurant offers a cheery but unassuming façade, with a pair each of tables and flower pots on the sidewalk flanking the entrance, backed by several windows and a stone façade that gives it an European-café look; the effect is a touch disarming, and I couldn’t help a smile as my mother and I stepped through the front door.
Internally, the restaurant has an almost surprisingly minimalist look to it, with both cashier and kitchen tucked away behind a brushed-steel counter in one corner of the single modest public room. There’s little seating to be had indoors, limited to three tables with five or six seats apiece plus a quartet of bar seats inside the front windows. Besides a soda fountain, perhaps half a dozen photos of Italian food and statuary decorate the dining area, adding to the simple yet functional feel of the area.
The entire left wall forward of the cashier’s stand is taken up by a blowup print of Pasta Avanti’s extremely simple menu, which is presently limited to a build-your-own pasta bowl, panino sandwich and Caesar salad; customers use pens and miniature clipboards to mark their choices on order forms, which the cashier takes and rings up. For the former two, you choose either a pasta type of the sandwich, then add your choice of sauce and two vegetables from lists sporting several options for each. The sandwich costs two bucks more than the pasta bowl but also includes a selection from the four-item list of added meats, a bargain for carnivores since the charge for adding a meat to any of the three entrees is at least $3.95. I ended up ordering a panino ($9.95) for myself to try out as many options as I could, while Mom wanted a simpler lunch and built a pasta bowl ($7.95); the service was fast despite a nearly full dining room, and we had our food in just under 10 minutes.
My panino came assembled on a large, warm and flexible piece of flatbread already unfolding under the weight of its mixed ingredients, almost more of an Italian burrito than a cohesive sandwich. Once I picked it up and dug in, however, I found that the combination of items I’d chosen worked together quite well. Leaves of spring lettuce and slices of fresh mozzarella, standard in all sandwiches, gave it a cool base to start things off, which the roasted red pepper marinara I’d selected built on and enhanced with a strong kick of laid-back spiciness; it still didn’t drown out the meat I’d selected, sliced meatballs, which carried a lovely hint of aniseed amid their inherent richness. The vegetables were a bit of a jumble, because both clustered in the middle of the sandwich, but a generous quantity of roasted garlic lent a savory cast to every bite; I couldn’t taste the only misfire, a pile of sun-dried tomatoes I'd requested, although at a glance they may have been replaced by fresh tomatoes in the kitchen.
Next to me, Mom quickly pulled out the disposable utensils she’d been handed to work on her plastic dish of pasta. I thought the service looked cheap, but as a longtime state employee on 4th Avenue she had a different view: “It's designed for Downtown workers -- everything is takeaway.” She very much liked what she thought was a large serving of angel hair pasta, noting that it’s not a commonly available choice in Italian restaurants, and said even the base marinara sauce “tastes homemade.” Something of a purist, she didn’t ask for any vegetable choices but did have a layer of shaved Parmesan cheese added to the top ($0.75 extra), which she considered a good investment despite a free jar of grated cheese at the table: “It's got a good taste to it; it tastes fresh, unlike that dried crap in there.”
In Italian, “Avanti” literally translates as “forward,” but can also answer a knock on one’s door like the phrase “Come in.” While it’s obviously specialized, I’d recommend coming in to Pasta Avanti when you’re in the mood for some quick and cheap Italian fare, since it’s one of the fastest and most efficient lunch buys I’ve yet come across Downtown. With its Facebook page mentioning plans to add gelato, already a real treat at Rustic Goat, Pasta Avanti is starting small but could become a force to be reckoned with as its menu develops.