Recently I’ve become mildly obsessed with casunziei, the half-moon-shaped ravioli native to the northeastern part of Italy, where the Dolomite Mountains rise, and that are the house specialty at Colapasta, a low-key trattoria that opened near Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade this summer.
Casunziei are a still life of hyper-saturated color — golden-yellow around the edges, with a brooding, dark-purple center that conjures black figs or dead-ripe summer berries. They are filled with roast beetroot and bathed in brown butter, Parmigiano cheese and poppy seeds; the interplay of the supple, paper-thin pasta and the delicate crunch of the tiny poppy seeds is unusually compelling. Each bite is vivid with the sweetness of beets, their bright earthiness slicing through puddles of melted cheese and brown butter.
Stefano De Lorenzo is the pasta maker; he was born and raised in the mountain town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, the heart of casunziei country. He said the recipe he uses at Colapasta closely resembles the one his mother weaned him on.
De Lorenzo has been a fixture of Los Angeles’ Italian dining scene for more than two decades. He was the chef-owner of La Botte, the long-running, Michelin-starred fine dining room in Santa Monica that closed in 2014. Before that, he cooked at the tiny white-tablecloth Venice restaurant Piccolo.
More recently, he was cooking at Maccheroni Republic when a real estate broker friend alerted him about a storefront opening up in downtown Santa Monica. De Lorenzo quit to open Colapasta, named after the Italian word for colander.
The restaurant is small and pasta-centric, closer in format to fast-pasta restaurants like Uovo than to a typical neighborhood trattoria. Soured on fine dining, De Lorenzo said he did not want to open another “special-occasion splurge” but rather an “everyday” restaurant. Nothing on the menu is more than $15. This is pasta for the people, he says.
The Colapasta menu has been built around the limitations of a tiny kitchen space that fits only “a 36-inch grill and one pot of water.” So there are never more than seven or so pastas on the menu at any given time, including feather-light potato gnocchi dressed simply in olive oil and tossed with slivered almonds, sweet cherry tomatoes and wild arugula.
Gramigna — thin, hollow strands of curled pasta — arrive in a Bolognese ragù, the meaty sauce anchored with sweet-tart streaks of tomato. The pasta twists easily without breaking, and it has a crisp, satisfying chew.
There is always one seasonal pesto on the menu; recently it was a thin, fastidiously blended, late-summer basil pesto paired with tight, firm coils of rustici. There might be anchovy-scented bigoli glossed with garlicky oil, or thick chewy tubes of oregano-dusted calamarata, served al pomodoro, the bowl dotted with glistening bulbs of stracciatella cheese. There is always casunziei.
The nondescript glass exterior of Colapasta is fairly easy to mistake for some type of corporate headquarters. The lighting is flat and unmoody in the dining room; its gray color scheme is more credit union lobby than low-key trattoria. But a beer and wine license is imminent, and it’s easy to imagine how the room will warm when the wine starts to flow.
Not counting his casunziei, De Lorenzo says lasagna is the most popular pasta he makes. His version is craftsmanlike and deceptively light, constructed of papery, mille-feuille-like layers of dough, bound tightly by measured doses of beef ragù and béchamel. It has a crusty edge, and a subtle decadence that inspired me to order a second piece before I was done with my first. Like his many pasta-making endeavors, the finished product is elegant and spare, belying hours of careful effort.
During dinner service, De Lorenzo regularly emerges from the kitchen to take the temperature of the room. He enjoys mingling with guests but also speaks fondly of solitary, late-night pasta-making in his kitchen. Every night, De Lorenzo stays late to make two or more lasagnas for the following day’s lunch and dinner service, finishing his work around midnight.
“It’s the best time of the day. I like having all that space to work in. It’s quiet and I can think,” he says. “And when I’m done I close the restaurant and go to In-N-Out and get a burger and go to sleep. Then I do it all over again.”
Prices: Pasta $11-$14; antipasti $9-$12.
Details: Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Recommended: Casunziei, lasagna, gramigna Bolognese, gnocchi