Italian Rebounds at San Marzano Pasta Fresca

Italian Rebounds at San Marzano Pasta Fresca

Sometimes a restaurant endears itself to you not because it's wildly fancy, not because the chef has a made-for-TV face, not because of the high-fashion crowd or the gastronomic innovation of the menu—but simply because it's cheap and good. Before it closed last year, the San Marzano on the LES was just that kind of place—My go-to brunch spot. One of the chief lures was the decadent breakfast pizzas fired in a visible wood-burning oven (covered in gorgonzola and pancetta and topped with a runny fried egg). An even bigger lure: Unlimited mimosas ($8!). But, alas, it closed suddenly last year and my heart broke (like so many of the yokes I had popped over piping hot pizzas). When I head they reopened in the East Village, my heart was a’flutter . . . but I was skeptical: No more wood-burning stove? The wood-fired pizzas and unlimited mimosas may have expired (I shed a tear), but they've been replaced by an equally arousing (and economic) duo of traditional pastas and pitchers of sangria. And one thing has remained the same: Rock-bottom prices.

The location is quintessentially East Village: E. 7th & Second Avenue. Window walls let passerbys look right into a dining room that epitomizes the “rustic chic” aesthetic that seems to have manifested itself in every spot that’s opened since the mid-aughts: Edison bulbs hang from high ceilings, wood is everywhere, large, vintage-style steel cabinets with slot shelves are placed around the restaurant, many jutting out and are open or partially open to varying degrees. In this case, familiar (if unimaginative) is welcome. It reads casual, warm and comfortable—and it is.

The menu is simple and satisfying. A small selection of appetizers—the meatballs (veal/pork/beef mix) are small, moist and drenched in a mushroom marinara; the calamari sizable and crispy with a lemon-y marinara; the burrata’s dense exterior reveals creamy rich innards with pancetta and dollops of balsamic reduction—are priced between $7 and $9. A create-your-own pasta menu (each at $9) lets you take the reins, with variations of pasta (from parppardelle to gluten-free tagliatelle) that can be paired with tantalizing tomato-based sauces (the Bolognese is hearty and elemental; "alla normal" packing roasted eggplant, pesto and thick, melted slices of mozzarella). There's only one cream-based dish on the menu, yet it shines above all the others: ravioli stuffed with pear and gorgonzola in a cream sauce with toasted walnuts and thyme. The alcohol is alarmingly inexpensive, with mason jars of on-tap beers at $4 and light, refreshing pitchers of red sangria (which easily yields eight glasses) at $8. Drink up, thirsty thrifters.

The food is filling and familiar. The atmosphere easy-going. The location central. But the most stand-out feature—one that a foodie could only dream more NYC restaurants would adopt—is the price. When an appetizer, pasta entrée and beverage totals $21.75, I’ll definitely be back. And I’m brining the entire famiglia. It’s on me.