As each enormous portion arrived at our table at Pasta Cosi in Branford, I thought of this admonition: Never eat more than you can lift. In a minuscule place, this pasta specialist serves food in huge bowls or on platters. A word to the prudent: either skip the appetizer or the entree (both courses are meal size), but under no circumstances consider passing up dessert, especially if you love chocolate.
Considering Pasta Cosi’s modest, luncheonette look, one might expect that the desserts would be trucked in and be minimal at best. Not at all. Our server explained that she had made two of them, including the absolutely ambrosial chocolate crème brûlée, which was more of an intensely rich pot du crème (and did not need the brûlée sugar seal). She also told us that a fellow staff member had made two other desserts, including a fluffy white chocolate mousse resting on a delicious fudgy brownie.
No question about it: desserts were the high point of our dining experience. Not that the rest of the meal could be faulted.
Pasta Cosi makes its own fresh pasta in six different styles. They can be mixed and matched with a number of house-made sauces, several of which are for sale in one-pound glass jars for $5. Lobster ravioli in a roasted plum, tomato and garlic sauce is listed on the menu, but you can also order ravioli stuffed with cheese, wild mushrooms, or walnuts and Gorgonzola.
We chose to stay with the menu, even though there were several non-pasta dishes available as specials, including the rack of lamb and the steak Marsala. Our starters led us on a downward path of excess. The hearty eggplant Cosi should have been followed only by dessert. The three large sautéed eggplant slices were layered with roasted sweet red peppers and ricotta, baked in a marinara sauce and crowned with melted mozzarella and reggiano parmesan.
Pane cotta, a casserole packed with sautéed escarole, included white beans, garlic and chunks of bread with a crest of parmesan baked into a sizzling, aromatic mélange. Had we known about the gigantic portions, we might have avoided seconds of the crusty Italian bread and the deliciously pungent olive-oil dip that was served on our arrival. Our best starter was roasted portobello: an umbrella cap of meaty mushroom, decorated with toasted pine nuts and melted Gorgonzola, roosted atop a pile of mixed greens laced with sun-dried-tomato oil.
Pasta Cosi is about more than just quantity. The corkscrew fusilli Gorgonzola di marino featured strips of chicken breast, toasted pine nuts and a plum tomato sauce, simmered in chicken broth, along with Gorgonzola cheese, spinach and herbs. It was abundantly satisfying. Salsicce e finocchietto combined sautéed crumbled, sweet Italian sausage, toasted fennel seeds, garlic, parmesan and a touch of cream with tube-shaped rigatoni in a serving hefty enough for a boxer in training.
The penne in a peppery, garlicky arrabiata sauce was also abundant. That does not mean we sidestepped the desserts. The chocolate ganache raspberry tart was almost as out of this world as the chocolate crème brûlée and the white chocolate mousse. The house cappuccino was first rate, too; it was more like a dessert and not the routine coffee with a mere wisp of foam on top. Our three-course dinner for two came to $53, a noticeable value, plus tax, gratuity and drinks. A short wine list of California and Italian wines begins at $18.
For substantial Italian fare that is carefully cooked and moderately priced, and for desserts that lift the spirit, Pasta Cosi is the kind of cozy little neighborhood place every town deserves. Would that mine had its match.