Just as most people, I always have a jar of marinara and a box of spaghetti in my pantry. The brand I happen to have in stock at the moment is Barilla. It’s not always the case, but my point is that I’m never more than 15 minutes away from a pasta dinner. So when I heard that Casa Barilla—the restaurant arm of the Parma, Italy-based food brand that manufactured my current supply of pasta and sauce—opened in South Coast Plaza, I asked myself, “Why would I go to a restaurant to eat the same bowl of spaghetti I can make at home?”
If it were called anything else, I wouldn’t have the same reservations. Casa Barilla isn’t the first Italian fast-casual concept to start with premade sauces and dry pasta, but going in, I knew the kitchen would be using its factory-made products, because, well, why wouldn’t it? Because of this, there’s no mystery, no ambiguity and no presumption on my part that anyone at the restaurant slaved over a stove for hours making stuff from scratch. Still, the company is riding on the name recognition it has carefully built in the U.S. It’s betting that those very same Barilla commercials that convinced me to buy Barilla for my pantry is going to make me want to go to its restaurant.
And it’s pretty confident other customers will, too. Casa Barilla has three branches in New York and now two in Southern California. The South Coast Plaza location takes up half of the space that used to be Rainforest Café, next to Sears and downstairs from Din Tai Fung. It has gorgeous wooden tables, color-coordinated benches and a solid-marble cashier’s counter. As the centerpiece, a backlit wall relief of wheat stalks painstakingly created from pieces of wood is so striking it belongs in MoMA. Next to this, I saw uniformed chefs preparing food in a brightly lit open kitchen.
“Preparing” is the key word here; “cooking” is too strong a term. Not only is the marinara presumably the same stuff from the jars (though the menu says it’s “freshly made”), the pasta is precooked. When an order came in, I saw one of the kitchen employees take a plastic packet out of a waist-high fridge, peel it open, then deposit the contents into a sieve submerged in hot water. He allowed the pasta to reheat for a few seconds before draining it and dumping it into a sauté pan set atop an induction stove. He tossed it around with vegetables and meat that had been seared earlier. Finally, he mixed in a ladle of sauce, then plated it. It’s an efficient and sterile-looking process designed to deliver meals as consistently and quickly as possible.
I avoided the pastas not because they didn’t look good, but because I wanted something that took more effort, something I can’t pull off at home in half an hour. The lasagna fit that category. It also happens to be the restaurant’s signature dish. Soft throughout, with meat sauce tucked between layers of pasta and an actual béchamel, it was a decent piece of lasagna. But it was missing the usual ooey-gooey richness I’ve come to expect from the dish. After I ate this version, I immediately wanted to look elsewhere to find a better one. It’s also the first time I’ve ever seen lasagna served with a puddle of marinara on the side. And though I was initially disappointed I was given a corner piece, in which cheese and pasta fused into a burnt mass, it turned out to be the best part of the dish.
If you want to skip the pastas for the same reasons I did, there are paninis, soups, salads and pizzas made with “hand-rolled and long-raised dough.” Every pizza is a perfectly formed rectangle lopped into four perfectly equal right triangles. End-to-end, the crust was as uniformly thick and as rigid as an iPhone. With a constitution somewhere between concrete and ciabatta, no amount of toppings could dampen it nor bend it. It also had a flavor that reminded me of those frozen Celeste pizzas I consumed years ago. I’m still unsure whether I liked it despite this or because of it.
The best thing I ate at Casa Barilla was the pasta e fagioli soup, which was full of beany comfort and actually tasted as if it were made from scratch. But the reason I might go back to eat there again is it’s the first fast-casual restaurant I’ve encountered where I wasn’t asked or given the option to leave a gratuity. And because I’m always within minutes of a homemade plate of Barilla pasta I can make myself, the restaurant needs every reason it can muster to convince me to eat it there instead.
Casa Barilla, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (657) 205-1025; barillarestaurants.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Entrées, $7.95-$14.50. Beer and wine.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.