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Pasta Perfect 

The menu makes D.C. Pasta Co. a grazing good time

Dante Boccuzzi's new D.C. Pasta Co. may be the most cheerfully interactive Italian restaurant around, and it likely would do well in every corner of town. Indeed, if Boccuzzi ever manages to catch his breath — this summer's debut of DBA in Akron will be his third restaurant opening in a little over six months — he says he plans to expand the brand.

Shoehorned onto a one-page menu are enough choices for a diner to design a different daily meal for months. Options run the gamut from a buck-fifty meatball to an $18 hanger steak, with multiple stops along the way. Meals for two — huge meals, with a bottle of wine and a doggie bag — typically come in south of $60. And we're not talking packaged noodles asphyxiated beneath an ocean of red sauce: All pastas are housemade, and the sauces are compelling, flavorful, and distinctive.

If there is a shortcoming to a menu like this, it's that it can leave a diner shell-shocked. Every little bit of real estate is devoted to another provision. There are soups and starters, sure, but also cured meats, Italian cheeses, marinated veggies, meatballs, pastas, entrées — even olives.

Those pastas come in three different sizes: taste, appetizer, and main. To further complicate matters, many menu items can be ordered by the piece or by the trio. The upside is that dinner here can easily turn into a free-flowing Italian feast. The downside is figuring out what to try now and what to save for next time.

Our advice? Order a bottle of wine — there are 25 options under $25 — take a big swig, and map out your meal. Our server was extremely helpful describing both the format and food, lending suggestions for both. Unfortunately, while a small-plate-inspired menu like this one is ripe for spontaneous grazing, staffers push diners to order everything up front, which sort of undercuts the theory.

We kicked off our recent feast with a $22 bottle of Tuscan Montepulciano and an assortment of salumi. Thin slices of high-quality Italian prosciutto, sopressata, and mortadella are arranged on a small bamboo platter garnished with nothing more than breadsticks. Marinated vegetables such as artichokes, eggplant, and peppers are offered individually or by the trio. Prices are $3 for one choice or $7 for a trio.

Fried smelt are a rare and wonderful treat. That's why it was a pity that a fritto di mare starter — fried smelts, squid, and shrimp — was less than crisp and more than a little greasy. The fish was paired with a caper-studded aioli. A rich and creamy polenta dish hits all the right notes; it just seems out of place in the appetizer section.

Inhabiting the spine of the menu, the pastas and meatballs clearly are the stars of this show, edging out even the mains. While there's no wrong time to eat a meatball, we suggest asking the server to bring them alongside the pasta. Priced at $1.50 each, the five varieties are made from pork, beef, turkey, lamb, and ricotta. The lamb and pork are outstanding, the turkey predictably dry, and the ricotta a heavenly revelation.

Wisely, the chef knows where to draw the line at diner customization. Pasta types are paired with one appropriate sauce as opposed to letting guests mix and match, which would have added a needless layer of complexity. Linguini, for one, comes bathed in a truffle-scented cream sauce made all the more rich from a runny poached egg. Broad, sturdy pappardelle stand up to a meaty, well-seasoned ragu of beef, veal, and pork. Ridged tubes grip an intensely flavored sauce of shredded braised lamb, mint, and tomato. Wagon wheels seem perfectly paired with puttanesca, with the briny capers and olives getting lodged in the "spokes." All selections are priced at $5, $10, or $15 depending on portion size.

A handful of simple grilled items like trout, hanger steak, and chicken are available too. But as our server says, "We have 'pasta' in our name, not 'grill.'" That also means no pizza or chicken parm either.

If there's a downside to D.C., it's the space: a drab strip-mall unit split into two rooms. But for pasta and vino this good and affordable, I'd gladly dine in a boxcar.

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