Midlife crises stereotypically take the form of a new car, hair plugs, or a steamy love affair with your mixed-doubles tennis partner. But for Mitch and Kris Thayer, it came as a new quick-service restaurant called Pasta Zola, open since November in Eden Prairie Center’s second-floor food court. Seriously. As Kris wrote in a recent email to Heavy Table: “We are 50-somethings, with no prior experience in the food business (crazy!) who have left the corporate world (yah!) to bootstrap a new concept (REALLY crazy!).”
Crazy, perhaps, but the Thayers could have stumbled upon a worse concept when deciding to enter the culinary world. Because really, who doesn’t like hot, fresh pasta? (Pipe down, Atkins followers. Your day in the sun is long gone.) We sampled four pastas during a recent lunchtime visit, and while not blown away by any particular dish, we had a tasty, filling lunch that didn’t drain our wallets or our blood sugar.
Unlike perennial pasta favorite Noodles, which offers a set menu of dishes, Pasta Zola allows customers to mix and match their noodles (corkscrews, rigatoni, whole wheat penne, and cheese tortellini) with a variety of sauces, ranging from a mild red sauce, marinara and Bolognese to a five-cheese blend and an Alfredo that can be “infused” with flavors like pesto, roasted red pepper, and roasted garlic ($4.25 / small, $5.25 / regular). Meatballs, Italian sausage, chicken, ham and peas, bacon, or sauteed vegetables can be added for $1.99 / each. A couple of salads and breadsticks round out the menu, but the focus is on the pasta.
The macaroni and cheese with corkscrew noodles didn’t have the depth of flavor of other mac and cheeses in town (the smoked gouda version at The Herb Box comes to mind), but the smooth sauce settled snugly into the ridges of the pasta, ensuring every bite was hot and cheesy. The sweet and tangy marinara paired well with sauteed vegetables for a dish that seemed as healthy as it was hearty. If only those veggies had been mixed throughout the cute Chinese take-out box holding the noodles – then they wouldn’t have disappeared with those first bites. The cheese tortellini, which costs $1 extra, tossed with Alfredo sauce, ham, and peas was so appealing that my dining companion kept eating long after she was full. And the hefty meatballs offered enough bulk and flavor to another meal that leftovers became necessary.
The pesto fusions also add a nice kick to the Alfredo sauce, particularly the roasted red pepper and roasted garlic variations. The garlic isn’t so strong that you’ll be mistaken for a vampire slayer upon returning to work but still offers the spice garlic lovers crave, and the roasted red pepper lends a touch of sweetness to the rich sauce. You can order your pasta as part of a value meal with a breadstick and soda, but skip it – the soft, limp breadstick had nothing going for it. Get a small side salad or just pile the veggies onto your pasta for some added nutrition.
Whether Pasta Zola succeeds is up to the hungry patrons of Eden Prairie Center, but when faced with the option of dining at McDonald’s, LeeAnn Chin, or Pasta Zola, the answer is a no-brainer. Freshly tossed pasta should win out over Big Macs every time.
BEST BET: The corkscrew pasta with roasted red pepper-infused Alfredo sauce ($4.25 / $5.25).
Eden Prairie Center #2320
8251 Flying Cloud Dr
Eden Prairie, MN 55344
OWNERS: Mitch and Kris Thayer
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $4.25 (small), $5.25 (large); add meats and veggies for $1.99 / each