Contreas, 50, came to the states from Central America as a young man in 1975 before war ravaged his country and found work washing dishes 80 hours a week, at $1 an hour, in a red-sauce Italian restaurant on the South Side. He got his first raise after a year, and over time learned his way around the kitchen, eventually cooking for such Italian standbys as Piccola and Mary Angela's.
After eight years he was able to buy the first in his series of pizza places, Carini's, which still flourishes, under a different owner, on Williamsburg Road.
Along the way, he says, he met and married a fellow Salvadoran, Ilsis, who "runs the show" at Pasta House, while he spends most of his time cooking at Anthony's.
The Pasta House's name is a bit deceiving, because it's much more than a spaghetti- and-meatballs place. The menu is Italian, but it's wide-ranging Italian, offering fresh fish, prime steaks and lobsters.
The prices are what you expect at one of the new malls, but the food justifies them. Entrees range from $15 for a heaping bowl of black mussels to $24 for a filet mignon with a broiled lobster tail.
Pastas, which are made on the premises, run from $11 for baked manicotti and, yes, spaghetti with meatballs, to $17 for the house specialty, homemade noodles with crab and lobster in a cream sauce. The latter, while a bit spare on the lobster, was chock- full of crabmeat smothered in a heavy sauce.
If you want to eat light but still enjoy the pasta, opt for shrimp Napoli, in which extra-large shrimp too much for one bite are sautéed in garlic (but not enough to be overwhelming) with a butter-and-lemon wine sauce. Many entrees can be lightened up by substituting broccoli or another vegetable for the pasta.
Chef Carlos Alvares exhibits his deft touch in the kitchen with thin slices of tender veal sautéed and surrounded by large artichoke hearts and white asparagus in a mozzarella cheese wine sauce.
Mussels, as an appetizer or entrée, come in garlic and wine or marinara sauce. Several of ours came unopened, which is a sign of carelessness in the kitchen, as the unopened mollusks were dead mollusks.
Weekends bring several more choices of seafood, which may include sea bass or a pleasing combination of scallops, shrimp and mushrooms in a light red sauce.
Pasta House makes its own bread, a warm and crispy loaf just right for dipping into the various sauces.
The desserts are not made on the premises but are nonetheless sinful. Tartufo is chocolate-plus, with a zabaglione cream center covered with chocolate gelato, crushed caramelized hazelnuts and cocoa powder.
Our waiter, in a bit of overkill, talked us into customizing the tiramisu by pouring a generous portion of Bailey's Irish Cream into holes he drilled into the layers of chocolate, mascarpone cheese and Kahlua.
There is a large wine list, with bottles ranging from $18 to $43 and glasses around $7.
All of this gluttony takes place in one of two softly lighted, carpeted dining rooms with dark-wood booths and panels, copper pots and plants. The front room has a handsome bar.
The Pasta House is the place to go when what you want is just a good meal, nothing too fancy, but more than down-home comfort food. A place with white tablecloths where you don't have to worry about a chef-gone-wild concoction that mixes blueberries with sea bass. SPasta House
($$$)8196 Atlee Road, Mechanicsville
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 4-10 p.m. Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
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