Clara’s Pasta—Heart Transplant

March 2014 View more

Photos by Greg Shapps

Photos by Greg Shapps

Sometimes a restaurant succeeds in large part because of its fabulous décor or unbelievable location, and sometimes it succeeds in spite of these things. In the case of Clara’s, the latter is certainly more likely than the former. While pasta lovers had descended upon the beloved eatery’s longtime location in a sunken, nondescript Woodridge strip mall for the past quarter century—or perhaps just happened upon the homey but cramped dining room after finishing up business at the neighboring animal clinic or plumbing supply company—it would be a stretch to believe anyone walked away raving about the physical surroundings.

Same Old, Brand New

Clara's-105It was, and always had been, the palpable sense of love and devotion emanating from the kitchen that mattered at Clara’s. So what if you were queued into the parking lot while waiting for a table or rubbing elbows with a complete stranger once you had secured one? The only physical bricks that drew the attention and won the heart were the massive slabs of lasagna. It was the kind of old-fashioned, unfussy Italian that you would gladly eat in a coat closet, and on busy nights it could feel like you were doing just that. But that was part of the charm of the place.

So devoted patrons were likely dealing with mixed emotions when Clara’s announced late last year that it was packing up and moving a few blocks north on Route 53 into the long-abandoned shell of a former Krispy Kreme donut shop near the Seven Bridges complex. On the one hand, a little extra breathing room and some fresh ambiance might be a nice change of pace after 25 years. But what if the heart and soul of the place they had grown to love—all of the intangibles that made it special—got left behind in the quest to “upgrade?”

Priorities in Place

Clara's-083The good news for longtime fans and newcomers alike is that there’s nothing to worry about here. The things that really matter made the trip, resulting in both an improved physical experience and a renewed commitment to the straightforward Italian cooking that made Clara’s such a destination in the first place.

The space itself, with its muted tones and handsome wood, tile, and stone throughout, will remind patrons of neither the former Clara’s nor the former Krispy Kreme. But fans of the free-donut-while-you-wait policy from the building’s previous life will probably appreciate the complimentary basket of warm rolls and focaccia that precede the meal here, joining forces with a savory dip of olive oil, oregano, and Parmesan to render the new leather-bound menu’s appetizer slate almost moot.

Clara's-003_CCWe managed to tear ourselves away from that basket with just enough room left to dig into a hot, hearty bowl of pasta fagioli soup to start, followed by a couple of dishes from folks who know their way around a noodle. Forgoing past favorites like the aforementioned lasagna and linguini with clams, I went with the Rudy Junior’s Shrimp Special, new to me but a holdover from the old place (most of the selections are, in fact, the same) that tops egg and spinach angel hair with delicious garlic shrimp in an olive oil, Parmesan and white wine sauce. My companion built her own dish of rigatoni and mushrooms in a rich vodka cream sauce from among the exhaustive array of pastas, sauces and add-in ingredients and flavor combinations in the back “cafeteria” section of the menu.

Against our better judgment, we closed things out with a hulking slice of a frozen cookie dough/praline concoction that sent us out into the night (past a familiar line of waiting diners) feeling just as we had so often in the past leaving the old Clara’s—satisfied on multiple levels.

Some things, it seems, never change.

Clara’s Pasta
6550 S. Route 53