Given we live in the age of the paleo diet, poké bowls and kale salad, it’d be fair to say the pasta lunch is no longer in vogue. It’s more common to spend the noon hour gnawing on raw vegetables, dreaming of a fettuccini and breadstick dinner instead.
But if there’s a lunch worth breaking your January resolutions for, it’s the pop-up residency currently happening at Santos Uy’s downtown wine bar, Mignon. It’s called Cento Pasta Bar (pronounced chen-to, the Italian word for 100) and it’s the brainchild of Avner Lavi, a former pasta chef at Bestia and Sotto and a longtime friend of Uy.
The lunch-only concept is fairly straightforward, based on the Italian menù turistico concept, a simple three-course prix fixe found throughout the tourist areas of Europe. Dishes are available à la carte as well, but for $18 you can match a plate of pasta with two more items: a glass of Veneto wine, a vibrant citrus-fennel salad, panna cotta with tangy charred strawberries or a shockingly good crostino paved with chicken liver pâté and sweet balsamic. That's a hard lunch deal to beat downtown.
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The stars of the show, of course, are those pastas. Lavi makes some by hand — small pillow-shaped agnolotti filled with butternut squash and dusted with finely pulverized Nilla wafers (a cheeky sub for traditional amaretto cookies), or big fat raviolo sauteed in sage butter and oozing ricotta and runny egg yolk hidden inside. Other pastas come from a small-batch semolina pasta producer in Italy, cooked to a toothy al dente and tossed with sauce to create combinations such as hearty beef bolognese with orecchiette, or sweet-sour agrodolce with stubby curls of fusilli and shaved raw cauliflower. Lavi is adamant that his pastas will change as often as possible, at least in part because of what he refers to as his own culinary ADD. “If I serve one pasta for a week, I’ve tasted it a couple hundred times,” Lavi jokes. “I want to eat new things too!”
If there’s a fixture on the menu thus far, it’s probably the delicately assembled spaghetti with uni, crab, and basil. Most of the pasta dishes here come in under $10, but even as the most expensive dish on the menu at $14, the seafood-saturated pasta is a bona fide steal.
Much like Papilles, Santos’ Hollywood restaurant, Cento aims to offer fine-dining cuisine in a casual setting, and so far the concept is winning fans. Lavi and Uy plan to operate the pop-up indefinitely — they're currently open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with Saturday service in the works — and are open to turning the concept into a full restaurant in the future. For now, though, they’re content making the pasta lunch cool again.
Cento Pasta Bar at Mignon, 128 E. Sixth St., downtown; (213) 489-0131, instagram.com/centopastabar.