In the beginning there was Tasty Bagel, founded in 1983 by two brothers from Bensonhurst. The next year they invented the big wheel bagel, a behemoth dough ring piled high with Italian cold cuts and butchered into 26 sandwiches. A decade later on the same spot the flagel was born—a flattened bagel liberally sprinkled with sesame seeds or other toppings. A recent road test confirms the appeal of the shape and taste, although it’s the dickens to cut and goes stale at an accelerated rate.
The empire expanded. Tasty Bagel begat Tasty Chicken, then Tasty Chicken spawned Tasty Pasta & Pizza, which recently spun off an upscale dining room. Accessible only by wandering through the pizza parlor, the restaurant occupies a long brick-clad room that’s comfortable, but lacks distinct character, making it feel like you’ve set down in some franchise restaurant in Cincinnati. The servers wear crimson polo shirts matched to the color of the tablecloths, with the word “Tasty” embroidered over the left nipple. We might have turned around and run, only the place smelled so good.
The menu seemed partly Sicilian with its rice balls and broccoli rabe, partly Neapolitan in its pastas and appetizers, and partly northern Italian in its emphasis on veal and other non-pork. The first thing to hit the table was a freebie plate laden with green beans and chickpeas swimming in a powerful vinaigrette. Nirvana! A short list of chef’s specials kicked off with grilled octopus ($9.95), tentacles carved in cross section and dressed with olive oil, vinegar, and crushed garlic, perfected with a dusting of herbs. The flesh was charred, crusty, and chewy all at once, with a briny aftertaste—a triumphant evocation of a dish you’d be more likely to find in a Greek restaurant.
Taking a cue from the octopus and the flagel, we pursued some of the more innovative items on the menu. Most stunning was a variation on that old chestnut, linguine with white clam sauce. The menu’s premium version ($14.95) featured a transformational touch of cream that mellowed the abrasiveness of the clam broth, with an unexpectedly generous heap of fresh minced clams deposited in the middle, and a Stonehenge of plump shrimp and still-in-their-shell clams arranged around the perimeter of the platter. It was the best linguine with clam sauce I’ve ever tasted, and three of us shared a single serving as a secondi.
While the non-pasta entrées are mainly medallions and breaded cutlets of chicken and veal, a couple of items stood out in the upper price range. It took several minutes of deliberation to decide between the veal chop and the rack of lamb ($24.99). Having won out due to its novelty on an Italian menu, the lamb provoked a gasp—instead of the usual four paltry chops, there were nine. Splayed on the plate in a decent rosemary-balsamic reduction, they were accompanied by an incongruous gravy boat of wobbly green mint jelly, making the entrée seem like a taste of Olde England. Though they’d been requested rare, the chops arrived almost well-done, but tasty nonetheless.
Oddities aside, Tasty Pasta & Pizza deserves plaudits for its adaptations of Neapolitan standards that have been served in Brooklyn for 100 years. The mozzarella in carrozza ($5.99) is as fine an example as you’ll find in the borough, a toasted cheese sandwich made of American white bread and mozzarella crumbed and fried to a deep brown, furnished with a chunky tomato dipping sauce. But the real significance of Tasty lies not in the red-sauced standards, but in the octopus and the clam linguine, both of which prove that Brooklyn’s unique Italian cuisine continues to evolve.