Old Town Pasadena — Old Pasadena, the chamber of commerce calls it — is one of the most restaurant-intensive neighborhoods in the world. More than 100 places are packed into a few blocks, with plentiful city parking, light rail stations and a concentration of pedestrians unprecedented elsewhere in the area. Most of the businesses occupy century-old garages and shop buildings that have made up Pasadena's main business district since the 1880s: Old Town is the poster child for adaptive reuse in America, and dozens of old downtowns have explicitly followed its lead.
Old Town is also an oddly dull place to have dinner — the area is attractive and fun, but rents are high, and the old buildings tend to be filled with chain restaurants and would-be chain restaurants; college-oriented pubs; high-volume pasta joints and middling sushi bars. It is easy to find excellent craft ale and $14 cheeseburgers. It is more difficult to find anything that might challenge a 13-year-old's palate.
At first glance, Union, in a stripped-down storefront on a block lined with restaurants and bars, may not seem especially different from the Old Town norm. The primary decoration is a chalkboard on which are scrawled quotes from Alice Waters and a schedule for local farmers markets. Where you might expect to find flowers on each table is a small Mason jar holding wheat stalks.
The waiters do not need much prompting to tell you the provenance of the walnuts or where the asparagus may have been grown. Shelves on the wall display row after row of pickles — the chef, Bruce Kalman, is locally famous for the pickles he sells at farmers markets — and you can be sure that the duck prosciutto is house-cured, the pasta is house-made, and the duck egg is free-range. The wine list is modest, mostly Italian, and leaning toward natural wine and small producers. If such a thing as a California-cuisine theme restaurant existed, it would probably look a lot like this. The shared-plates thing goes without saying.
When you spring $5 for the bread-and-butter plate, you are not surprised to discover that the hot, crisp bread comes with a small jar of Kalman's pickled vegetables, or that it is served on a slab of wood. (A lot of things are served on slabs here.) The quality of the sweet butter is pretty high, and the tart, crunchy giardiniera, a staple of Italian American tables, is elevated to the extent that freshly pickled farmers market cauliflower and baby carrots are superior to the same thing that comes from a factory in New Jersey. There are advantages to the craft food movement.
But you may not be expecting the suppleness of the lightly cured California-salmon crudo, the deep flavor of the guanciale broth in which the mussels were steamed, the elegant crispness of a salad of radish, shaved asparagus and walnuts, or the hardcore Italian grandmother vibe of the meatballs, which are enhanced with caper berries and lardo but taste like something that could have come out of a four-hour Sunday gravy. The great vegetables, you can take for granted. The touch of Italian soul, you cannot.
So when you get past the salads of roasted figs with ricotta, and of beets with buratta and of peaches with radicchio, there is the spaghetti alla chitarra — arranged into a tight cylinder, topped with a roasted hot chile, ready for its Instagram close-up but still very much spaghetti in tomato sauce, firm yet supple, and nearly as charismatic as its $24 equivalent at Scarpetta in Beverly Hills. The garganelli, floppy deconstructed penne dyed black with squid ink, are served with lobster meat, lemon zest and a random jolt of black truffle. Tagliatelle is sauced with long-braised pork, gelatinous bits from the head joining stringier shoulder.
And while braised lamb with farro can be mushy, and the restaurant's version of saltimbocca may be closer to pedestrian roast lamb than to the snappy veal dish from Rome, the porchetta, made with a slab of belly surrounding the leaner loin, is very good, the flavors of fennel and garlic ringing true, the new potatoes roasted in pork fat are as nice as you suspect they might be, and the sharp salsa verde is just right. Kalman is taking chances with slightly off-kilter preparations, and they seem to be fitting into this difficult neighborhood just fine.
There are perfectly delicious biscotti with vin santo, a hazelnut-chocolate budino with truffle salt, and panna cotta. What you want, every time, is the olive oil cake, luscious and mildly crisp-crusted, if only for a shot at the terrific honeycomb gelato.
Follow me on Twitter @thejgold
37 E. Union St., Pasadena, (626) 795-5841, unionpasadena.com.
Starters $9-$17; salads $11-$14; pastas $12-$21; main courses $22-$24.
Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. City lot parking across the street.