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Grinders for big appetites

November 11, 2018

Mystic — Delivering a grinder to a customer requires both hands at Pasta Fresca & Piadina.

The sandwiches are that big.

The large grinders are made on jumbo-sized rolls and loaded thick with meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and whatever extras a customer wants.

When one of her employees hands the finished sandwich to owner Tia Bettencourt, she knows she’ll need two strong hands to pass it on to a customer.

“If I don’t have to do this,” she says, motioning with both hands and her shoulders to mimic suspending a heavy load, “I know something’s not right.”

For almost 30 years, Pasta Fresca is the place where hungry people have gone to get their fix. The business was already long established when Bettencourt bought it in July 2016, and the first thing regulars wanted to know from her is if the grinders would still be big.

“I told them ‘Yes, I’m going to run it just the way the prior owner did,’” says Bettencourt, adding. “If it’s not broke, why fix it?”

She kept the shop’s name and made a few changes, extending the hours and adding daily soups and dinner specials to her take-out menu, but kept the basics the same.

For the new owner, buying Pasta Fresca was the realization of a lifelong dream.

For 25 years Bettencourt, who grew up in New London and Waterford as Tia Pezzolesi, imagined what it would be like to have her own restaurant.

She always enjoyed cooking, especially for a big crowd, whether it be family, school, church, or civic-minded groups or gatherings. For more than a decade, she was employed by TVCCA in its food and nutrition programs. But she says in the back of her mind she always thought about having her own restaurant, until finally a few years ago she was encouraged to stop talking about it and just do it.

Bettencourt searched listings for small restaurants for sale and happened upon Pasta Fresca. She met with the prior owner and, with her father’s encouragement, made an offer on the business that was accepted.

Ever since, she’s been putting her touch on Pasta Fresca on Lincoln Avenue in Mystic, tucked just off a side street a few blocks from downtown Mystic on the Stonington side of the Mystic River.

Friday is meatball grinder day, and regardless of how many meatballs she’s got ready, she always runs out. Regulars, she says, know to get in early or call ahead.

The chicken cutlet and chicken parmesan grinders are also popular, as are the soups, like Portuguese kale with chorizo and linguica, or Buffalo chicken chili.

Almost everything is made from scratch at Pasta Fresca, including the tomato sauce and breadcrumbs. Tia’s father, Lee, makes the meatballs, and her sister, daughter, son, and nephews all have roles in the business.

The place is tiny, just 380 square feet, so everything is take-out, and realistically there’s just one cook in the miniscule kitchen at a time.

Usually, Bettencourt works the counter, mans the phone, and makes easy banter with customers. She seems to know almost everyone by name, as well as their standard order and how they want it prepared.

When a newcomer comes in, Bettencourt introduces herself as the owner, explains the menu options, and always makes sure a customer gets their reward card punched — for every 10 sandwiches you get a free small meat grinder. That prompts Bettencourt to explain that at Pasta Fresca a small is really a large and a large really a meal for two.

In addition to the grinders — everything from the Italian trio (genoa, pepperoni and capicola) to roast beef, chicken salad, tuna, ham, turkey, and several others — there’s sandwiches, salads, and the dinner specials. Daily specials include the muffuletta sandwich or sausage and pepper grinders on Mondays, the steak and cheese or egg salad on Tuesdays, and well, you get it, every day there’s a change, right up to Saturday, when Bettencourt features an eggplant grinder.

She always knew she wanted to operate a neighborhood eatery — not a chain place — and describes Pasta Fresca this way: “I tell people, we’re not a big box place, we’re an old-fashioned neighborhood market with fresh food and hefty portions.”

Customer service is a key ingredient, she says, and she does whatever she can to accommodate customers.

“I tell them, ‘If the light is on, just knock,’” she says, explaining the shop opens at 10 a.m., but if someone orders ahead or needs an early-morning sandwich, she’ll oblige if she’s on the premises getting ready for the day ahead.

Her “Sunrise Special” is popular, especially during the busy summer boating season, allowing customers to order the day before and pick up between 7 and 10 a.m., before she even opens.

She also sells “The Peacemaker,” a large grinder that can be made half and half — say, tuna salad for her and mortadella for him.

“We want to keep everyone happy,” she says. “Why not? We are small enough to cater to individuals.”

Bettencourt works hard but says she’s satisfied owning her own business and serving others. Her mother died when she was a girl and she learned to cook from her father and paternal grandmother. Family is an important component of her business and helps to make Pasta Fresca successful.

“It’s what I always wanted,” she says. “I wanted a family-run neighborhood deli.”

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