In the early 2000s, Midtown saw the openings of several restaurants — derisively called pasta mills — in which diners matched different shapes of fresh pasta with sauces, without regard to what each pasta is suited for, or whether a particular sauce complemented it. The result was often culinary disaster: a gluey carbonara paired with angel hair ensured the bowl turned to yellow mush. Fast-forward to the present, as history repeats itself at newcomer Pasta Corner, located at 9 East 53rd Street just east of 5th Avenue.
The place comes with a novel pedigree: Pasta Corner is the project of French pop singer, Matt Pokora; actor, rapper, and Jersey City native, Christina Milian; and their baker friend, Vincent Benoliel. In addition to the New York location, there are branches in Los Angeles and in Paris and Lille, France.
Through the front window, you can see the walls of the deep and narrow space plastered with neon slogans. Up front, there’s a sales counter where salami, cheeses, fresh pastas, desserts, jars of the house tomato sauce, and croissants (which, we are assured, are made with Normandy butter) are sold to take home. Further inside, an L-shaped counter seats diners for three meals a day; the counter looks into an open kitchen where servings of pasta line up as giant bubbling pots stand ready to receive them.
Apart from nine antipasti, there are over 20 combinations of fresh pasta and sauce (there’s no mix-and-match option here). The problem is that many of these combinations, when properly made, depend on the pasta being of the dry sort rather than fresh, which is incapable of being cooked al dente. That’s the case with the restaurant’s spaghetti carbonara ($21), which uses a very soft spaghetti with the thickest sauce imaginable — incorporating egg yolk, heavy cream, pancetta, and Parmigiano. The poor pasta doesn’t stand a chance.
We tried two others: The pasta for penne arrabiatta ($16) was alright, but the sauce was a fail. It tasted like pureed tomatoes out of a can with no salt and no chiles. It reminded us of an appetizer we’d just tasted, “gaspacho” on the menu, that tasted like the same flavorless tomato puree. How could one make gazpacho and forget to add vinegar — or any other flavoring?
Among apps, the garlic bread wasn’t bad, with a fragrant amalgam welded to the bread, but the veal-and-beef meatballs were as plain as can be, dunked in exactly the same tomato sauce. At some point, you may ponder why this French-identified place is bothering with Italian pastas. Is this intended as a slap in the face to their south-of-the-border neighbors?
Back to those pastas, for which there are lots of options for add-ons — like burrata, which may be added to any pasta on the list, appropriate or not, for $5. And we hesitated to pay $60 to have 30 grams of Osetra caviar sprinkled over lemon cream spaghetti, or truffles and black truffle paste incorporated into a mushroom-and-crème-fraiche lasagna ($29).
Instead, we went for the Brooklyn favorite, tagliatelle alle vongole ($29), pasta with white clam sauce. You probably won’t be surprised to hear the dish lacks the spicy heat promised on the menu, and instead of using our celebrated local clams, it’s made with Manila clams. Though it wasn’t quite right, it was the best pasta I tried at Pasta Corner that day.
Or maybe our best bite was the New York style cheesecake ($8), with its thick graham cracker crust and the sweet tang of filling. My advice would be to order that tagliatelle with white clam sauce and a slice of cheesecake, and you could go away happy from Pasta Corner: otherwise you will wonder how French food could be so bad.