Grinders for big ap­petites

If you want the daily spe­cial, you bet­ter show up early to Pasta Fresca

The Day - - BUSINESS - By ANN BALDELLI

De­liv­er­ing a grinder to a cus­tomer re­quires both hands at Pasta Fresca & Piad­ina. The sand­wiches are that big. The large grinders are made on jumbo-sized rolls and loaded thick with meat, cheese, let­tuce, toma­toes, and what­ever ex­tras a cus­tomer wants.

When one of her em­ploy­ees hands the fin­ished sand­wich to owner Tia Bet­ten­court, she knows she’ll need two strong hands to pass it on to a cus­tomer.

“If I don’t have to do this,” she says, mo­tion­ing with both hands and her shoul­ders to mimic sus­pend­ing a heavy load, “I know some­thing’s not right.”

For al­most 30 years, Pasta Fresca is the place where hun­gry peo­ple have gone to get their fix. The busi­ness was al­ready long estab­lished when Bet­ten­court bought it in July 2016, and the first thing reg­u­lars wanted to know from her is if the grinders would still be big.

“I told them ‘Yes, I’m go­ing to run it just the way the prior owner did,’” says Bet­ten­court, adding. “If it’s not broke, why fix it?”

She kept the shop’s name and made a few changes, ex­tend­ing the hours and adding daily soups and din­ner spe­cials to her take-out menu, but kept the ba­sics the same.

For the new owner, buy­ing Pasta Fresca was the re­al­iza­tion of a life­long dream.

For 25 years Bet­ten­court, who grew up in New London and Water­ford as Tia Pez­zolesi, imag­ined what it would be like to have her own restau­rant.

She al­ways en­joyed cook­ing, es­pe­cially for a big crowd, whether it be fam­ily, school, church, or civic-minded groups or gath­er­ings. For more than a decade, she was em­ployed by TVCCA in its food and nutri­tion pro­grams. But she says in the back of her mind she al­ways thought about hav­ing her own restau­rant, un­til fi­nally a few years ago she was en­cour­aged to stop talk­ing about it and just do it.

Bet­ten­court searched list­ings for small restau­rants for sale and hap­pened upon Pasta Fresca. She met with the prior owner and, with her fa­ther’s en­cour­age­ment, made an of­fer on the busi­ness that was ac­cepted.

Ever since, she’s been put­ting her touch on Pasta Fresca on Lin­coln Av­enue in Mys­tic, tucked just off a side street a few blocks from down­town Mys­tic on the Ston­ing­ton side of the Mys­tic River.

Fri­day is meat­ball grinder day, and re­gard­less of how many meat­balls she’s got ready, she al­ways runs out. Reg­u­lars, she says, know to get in early or call ahead.

The chicken cut­let and chicken parme­san grinders are also pop­u­lar, as are the soups, like Por­tuguese kale with chorizo and lin­guica, or Buf­falo chicken chili.

Al­most ev­ery­thing is made from scratch at Pasta Fresca, in­clud­ing the tomato sauce and bread­crumbs. Tia’s fa­ther, Lee, makes the meat­balls, and her sis­ter, daugh­ter, son, and neph­ews all have roles in the busi­ness.

The place is tiny, just 380 square feet, so ev­ery­thing is take-out, and re­al­is­ti­cally there’s just one cook in the minis­cule kitchen at a time.

Usu­ally, Bet­ten­court works the counter, mans the phone, and makes easy ban­ter with cus­tomers. She seems to know al­most ev­ery­one by name, as well as their stan­dard or­der and how they want it pre­pared.

When a new­comer comes in, Bet­ten­court in­tro­duces her­self as

In ad­di­tion to the grinders — ev­ery­thing from the Ital­ian trio (genoa, pep­per­oni and capi­cola) to roast beef, chicken salad, tuna, ham, turkey, and sev­eral oth­ers — there’s sand­wiches, salads, and the din­ner spe­cials.

the owner, ex­plains the menu op­tions, and al­ways makes sure a cus­tomer gets their re­ward card punched — for ev­ery 10 sand­wiches you get a free small meat grinder. That prompts Bet­ten­court to ex­plain that at Pasta Fresca a small is re­ally a large and a large re­ally a meal for two.

In ad­di­tion to the grinders — ev­ery­thing from the Ital­ian trio (genoa, pep­per­oni and capi­cola) to roast beef, chicken salad, tuna, ham, turkey, and sev­eral oth­ers — there's sand­wiches, salads, and the din­ner spe­cials. Daily spe­cials in­clude the muf­fuletta sand­wich or sausage and pep­per grinders on Mon­days, the steak and cheese or egg salad on Tues­days, and well, you get it, ev­ery day there's a change, right up to Satur­day, when Bet­ten­court fea­tures an egg­plant grinder.

She al­ways knew she wanted to op­er­ate a neigh­bor­hood eatery — not a chain place — and de­scribes Pasta Fresca this way: “I tell peo­ple, we're not a big box place, we're an old-fash­ioned neigh­bor­hood mar­ket with fresh food and hefty por­tions.”

Cus­tomer ser­vice is a key in­gre­di­ent, she says, and she does what­ever she can to ac­com­mo­date cus­tomers.

“I tell them, ‘If the light is on, just knock,'” she says, ex­plain­ing the shop opens at 10 a.m., but if some­one or­ders ahead or needs an early-morn­ing sand­wich, she'll oblige if she's on the premises get­ting ready for the day ahead.

Her “Sun­rise Spe­cial” is pop­u­lar, es­pe­cially dur­ing the busy summer boat­ing sea­son, al­low­ing cus­tomers to or­der the day be­fore and pick up be­tween 7 and 10 a.m., be­fore she even opens.

She also sells “The Peace­maker,” a large grinder that can be made half and half — say, tuna salad for her and mor­tadella for him.

“We want to keep ev­ery­one happy,” she says. “Why not? We are small enough to cater to in­di­vid­u­als.”

Bet­ten­court works hard but says she's sat­is­fied own­ing her own busi­ness and serv­ing oth­ers. Her mother died when she was a girl and she learned to cook from her fa­ther and pa­ter­nal grand­mother. Fam­ily is an im­por­tant com­po­nent of her busi­ness and helps to make Pasta Fresca suc­cess­ful.

“It's what I al­ways wanted,” she says. “I wanted a fam­ily-run neigh­bor­hood deli.”

PHO­TOS BY SEAN D. EL­LIOT/THE DAY

Above, the kitchen crew at Pasta Fresca in Mys­tic, from right, Sarah Bab­cock, DJ Tom­lin­son and Rhys Stock­well, as­sem­ble grinders last week. Left, Sarah Bab­cock, right, hands a grinder to owner Tia Bet­ten­court as the crew at Pasta Fresca in Mys­tic serve a late lunch rush.

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