7 restaurants with the best pasta in the San Gabriel Valley (2022)

I don’t know exactly when and where spaghetti became pasta in American culture, any more than I’m sure of when and where movies turned into film. But I do know that spaghetti (or “sketti” as I knew it for a long time) has turned into a dying sub-species of pasta. Chances are good that if you go to an Italian restaurant, spaghetti will be just one dish among many (where it used to be all there was).

For better or worse, pasta — the essence of po’ folks food — has evolved into a gourmet staple, and the “sketti” and ketchup I was so fond of in my callow youth has long since been replaced by fettuccine carbonara and tagliatelle verde.Apocryphal tales about Marco Polo bringing noodles back from China to the contrary, pasta (which simply means “dough”) was most likely born in Italy. Though culinary historians (the few that there are) will no doubt always argue about the birthplace of spaghetti, it is a well-accepted fact that at least one of the fountainheads of pasta was Etruscan culture.

The Etruscans created noodles from a recipe that had been used in Greece for dough cakes by cutting the cakes into strips called laganon (which became the better known lasagna). Another early term for pasta was tri, which comes from the Arabic itriyah, which means “little strings,” and indicates that Arabic culture played a seminal role in the development of pasta (though these days, noodles are not a major part of Arabic cuisine).

By the beginning of the Renaissance, vermicelli (“little worms”) was the popular term for pasta; and the maccheroni of Sicily would later become the macaroni that so many of us ate in the form of mac ’n’ cheese.

Not that long ago, pasta was a simple thing here in Southern California, not much more than spaghetti, lasagna and, perhaps, fettuccine and rigatoni in more sophisticated settings.

These days, you need a scorecard to identify your pasta…and plenty of time spent on a Precor Elliptical to get rid of it. Feeling a need for pasta (no doubt the result of yet another failed attempt at Atkins), I’ve been looking for some good bowls of the stuff. The good news is: Finding it hereabouts is no problem at all.

7 restaurants with the best pasta in the San Gabriel Valley (1)

Di Pilla’s Italian

9013 Valley Blvd., Rosemead; 626-286-0275; www.dipillas.com

Di Pilla’s Italian has been around since 1967. But it looks, and feels, as if its been at the corner of Valley and Rosemead boulevards since the early 1900s. There’s a rollicking, Neapolitan style to the place that seems to turn every meal into a party — or a scene from “The Godfather.” And many if not most, are drawn in by the pastas.

There are dozens of pastas on the menu, and even more because one of the options is to choose a pasta, then choose a sauce. A section of the pastas is designated “meatless,” though there are plenty of other meatless pastas on the menu; this is a great place for vegetarians. And for one of my favorite combinations — a matrix of lasagna, ravioli and mostaccioli. Add on side orders of sausage and meatballs, and you have a perfect red sauce plate. With spumoni for dessert.At Di Pilla’s, life is easy — and reasonably priced too.

Contessa Italian Foods

The Shops on Lake Avenue, 380 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena; 626-744-0252; www.contessafoods.squarespace.com

Contessa Italian Foods isn’t just a destination in which to buy pasta — it’s where you go for an education in the many (many!) subtleties of wheat and water. We learn that this is “Tuscan artisanal pasta…its flavor recalls local soil, the humidity of a certain year and as in a good wine slight differences in taste and texture will occur year after year. … Dry pasta is a way of preserving the nutrition of summer grains into winter. Early versions of what we call pasta can be found in Greek literature, as well as across the ancient world. The first commercial pasta production was probably in Milan by the early 15th century, with export of Italian pasta already recorded in the beginning of the 1700s.

“By then, pasta was certainly associated with Italy, and its tradition of many sizes and shapes, which better ‘hold’ a specific sauce, was well established!”

Further, we’re told that, “The Artisan Pasta Factory of the Fabbri family in Tuscany, has been celebrating the most traditional methods of pasta making for the last five generations. From how the wheat is farmed, to how heirloom grains such as Senatore Cappelli are been sourced and locally cultivated. In this artisanal production important steps long lost in the mass and commercial production, are kept very much alive. … This pasta will taste and feel different from what you are used to.”

Tastes that you’ll find in the Casarecce (Tuscan durum wheat blend)…the Spaghettoni Toscani (Senatore Cappelli Super Tuscan Durum Wheat)…the Cornetti …the Linguine…the Nastroni Toscani…the Penne …the Stracci…and the Millerighe. You will learn far more about pastas here than you had any idea there was to know. At Contessa, pasta isn’t just something you put sauce on. It’s a way of life. A life in strands, ribbons and unexpected shapes.

7 restaurants with the best pasta in the San Gabriel Valley (2)


452 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; 626-432-6705; www.galesrestaurant.com

With its well-worn bare-brick walls, its distressed flooring, and its unusual artistic flourishes (is that head in the corner from Michelangelo’s David, or Canova’s Perseus?), Gale’s could be a terrific dining discovery on a backstreet in Firenze, rather than a parking lot off Fair Oaks. Which is a roundabout way of saying that we’re lucky to have it.

There are a lot of options for Italian food along Colorado; but only Gale’s takes us in a hidden world. Like many of my favorite restaurants, it’s hidden in plain sight. I like that about an eatery.

It’s hard to go wrong with anything on the menu at Gale’s. And definitely not with the pastas. The kitchen has a particularly good feel for the classics — among the 13 pastas, you’ll find corkscrewy rotini pasta in a meaty Bolognese sauce, linguine with clams, or a nice baked lasagna with that same chunky, meaty, cheese heavy Bolognese sauce. So simple, so basic, so good. A mantra that fits Gale’s so…well.


14104 E. Lambert Road, Whittier, 562-698-5899; 16255 Whittier Blvd., Whittier, 562-943-1113; www.lascarisdeli.com

At Lascari’s, it’s easy to celebrate the great joy, the unmitigated pleasure…of red sauce. And of pasta too, while we’re at it. It’s a great place to go when your craving for pasta totally overwhelms you — doused with tomato sauce. Spaghetti with marinara sauce, with meatballs and sausage as well, flavored with garlic and oregano in outlandish amounts.

To the spaghetti, you can add two meatballs, two Italian sausages, mushrooms — or go “mezzo-mezzo” (one meatball and one sausage).

If you’re further unsure, you can get a plate that’s half spaghetti and half ravioli, with as choice of meat sauce, meatballs or marinara. You can also get your spaghetti with olive oil and garlic. You can get it your way. Which may, if old school is your object for the evening, also include a pantheon of classics — baked ziti, lasagna, manicotti, linguine with clams (your choice, red sauce or white), along with a bestiary of dishes we just don’t find on modern menus. I’m talking about such joys of the Italian-American kitchen as baked eggplant parmigiana, veal parmigiana, veal piccata, chicken Romano, chicken marsala and fettuccine Alfredo.

There are numerous incarnations of Lascari’s, which the Lascari family has been husbanding since 1970. Lascari’s is an homage to the great joys of old school Italian cooking

Porta Via Italian Foods

1 W. California Blvd., Pasadena; 626-793-9000; www.portaviafoods.com

People speak rapturously of Bay Cities in Santa Monica, which is good — but it’s not the Italian markets of my youth. Domingo’s in Tarzana comes a bit closer — it’s got the sort of ripe cheese funk needed to give a market the proper aromatic grace notes.

It wasn’t until I wandered into Porta Via Italian Foods that I felt I had found a true outpost of Little Italy. The place looks good, it smells good — and it sure as heck tastes good.

There’s also a pretty fine Insalata Bar that begins with a selection of four greens (mixed, romaine, spinach and arugula), which you can trick up with a variety of mix-ins — capers, bacon, caramelized onions, feta, artichoke hearts, olives and more.

And for a few bucks extra, you can add on tuna, chicken, cured meats or shrimp. A fine warm-up for more substantial dishes like the Italian sausage with broccoli rabe, the well-roasted leg of lamb with lemon salad, and the orecchiette with broccoletti — one of the 16 prepared pastas available to eat in, or take out, as you wish.

There are another 11 frozen pastas, including full and half pans of lasagna Bolognese, sausage lasagna, vegetable lasagna and baked ziti. Lotsa food — just like in the old country, in the old world.

Ravello Osteria

2315 S. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; 323-722-7600; www.ravelloosteria.com

You could pick up Ravello Osteria — a garlic-heavy Italian wonder on the southern edge of Monterey Park — and drop it in the Little Italys of New York and San Francisco, and it would fit in just fine. It’s an old school Italian eatery, with many long tables, feeding large groups oversized pizzas and platter of pasta.

All that’s missing is an old guy from Naples, playing music on a concertina, and the place could be just down the road from Pompeii.

Ravello combines the best of two worlds — it’s both very good…and it’s fun, because the waiters and the cooks, all know what they’re serving is some of the best downhome Italian cooking for miles around, in large portions, at reasonable prices. And in that spirit, it’s hard to resist.

Among the seven well-turned, classic pastas, it’s tempting to get the spaghetti carbonara, the linguini with lobster, or the penne with sausage and rapini. But it’s also hard to resist the chicken breast with wild mushrooms, the double rib cut pork chops and the rib eye steak, with roasted garlic mashed potatoes. And since most of the long tables are occupied by large groups, those dishes aren’t resisted.

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at mreats@aol.com.

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7 restaurants with the best pasta in the San Gabriel Valley (3)

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