Okazu 85 Downie 85 Downie Street Stratford, Ontario N5A 7V8…
38 Erie Street
Stratford, ON N5A 2M4
Winter lunch: Tuesday – Friday 11:30am-2:00pm
Winter dinner: Thursday – Saturday 4:30pm-8pm
Dinner for two: $85
AO Pasta is located on Erie Street in downtown Stratford. As such, that makes it just slightly outside of the city’s central core of restaurants where you have Pazzo, Mercer Hall and Bentley’s along Ontario Street, and Red Rabbit and Bijou on Wellington.
That fact perhaps doesn’t necessarily sit well with AO Pasta chef-owner Kris Schlotzhauer — he certainly wants more foot traffic to the relatively new 20-seat restaurant — but for he and wife and co-owner Suzy, it’s about balance.
The pair pulled out of the Toronto restaurant industry and returned to Kris’s birth city in order to open a restaurant that, he hopes, will allow a better work-life balance. (You can read more about that in my earlier article about Schlotzhauer.)
For the most part, they accomplished that goal when they opened in early summer of 2018, just in time for the city’s busy Festival season. The “A” and the “O” refer to the couple’s two kids.
It’s a first-come first-served seating system with no reservations, and there’s minimal staff. But it works.
The small menu is packed with flavour. There are several starters including salad, bean soup and arancini, which are very good. Try out an antipasti too.
There are about a half-dozen pastas and often some sort of a stuffed one. Schlotzhauer cooks now what he learned a few years ago at Enoteca Sociale, the Rocco Agostino trattoria on Dundas West, Toronto.
At Sociale, Schlotzhauer learned about pasta: it’s at once simple and a hard dish to perfect. “There’s a lot of bad pasta out there,” he says.
AO pastas, as they should be, are lightly sauced, not buried and overwhelmed so the spaghettini or the farfalle or the rigatoni is the focus. If you eat them this way, there’s good taste there to which the sauce adds a gentle layer. With so much bad pasta out there, you may not have noticed that.
“Good ingredients and good techniques make something simple like pasta and tomato sauce with garlic and basil shine. For me, that’s what good food is,” Schlotzauer adds.
On a sheet of paper hanging by the POS is a magic marker list of specials. Always check those out.
Sauces like the pomodoro (but not the four-hour Bolognese) are made to order from scratch over two or three minutes. It’s freshness and acidic brightness that are the objective.
Ravioli and feature pastas like the fettuccine for an Alfredo are made in-house.
I enjoyed a wonderful beet salad with arugula and creamy ricotta and a ricotta-spinach ravioli in a very fine butter sauce.
There’s an antipasti plate with meats, cheese and preserves ($15), but I sampled a couple of different cured meats as per the special sheet, and they were delicious. Think of it: it’s a simple focus on a couple of different flavours and textures, with salty richness that stimulates for the next course.
Mixed greens are a nice acidic and grassy appetizer, while meatballs are a blend of beef and pork which are soft and supple and never stodgy. They come in a trio with sauce and Parm for $10.
The menu changes regularly but rarely is anything much over $20. That’s another benefit to the simple, scaled-back model here.
There are a couple of classic desserts you’d expect in a pasta house: tiramisu and panna cotta. But, very nicely, they also serve Kitchener-based Four All Ice Cream too. There’s also cocktails and digestivos, as well.
AO Pasta is small and quaint, but it’s delicious: a pasta joint doesn’t need to be anything else.
I think you should check it — not only for the food but for the changes the Schlotzhauers, who have just re-opened after a brief winter respite, are trying to encourage in their industry by doing it for themselves, their family and their staff.