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Our Gourmet: Build your own great Italian dinner

196 Central St., Franklin NH

Whether you're a fan of adventurous choices, a control freak or just a lover of garlic, exotic pastas and excellent sauces, Ciao Pasta and its unusual mix-and-match menu is your reason to visit downtown Franklin. TDC should get a finder's fee for steering us to this out-of-the-way gem.

It's not much to look at from the outside, but the wonderful, garlicky aroma alone is enough to draw you in. Inside, it's fairly close quarters, but the atmosphere is casual and friendly. Clearly, there were a number of regular customers in the house the Saturday we were there, and having visited once, we can understand why they would keep coming back.

Menu 20/20:

Aside from a handful of "Signature Specials," Ciao Pasta's entree menu is all about choices (and pasta). First you choose your pasta from a list of 10 fresh varieties ($4-$5), ranging from cheese ravioli to whole wheat ziti, or five imported dry options ($3). Then you move on to the list of 10 sauces ($4-$5) which includes marinara, carbonara, bolognese, vongole (white clam sauce). Finally, you choose "add-ons" ($2-$11) from a dozen meats, vegetables and seafoods. It's all delicious, it all smells fantastic, and it's a lot of fun.

If you're indecisive, finalizing your pasta/sauce/add-on combination could take a while. But not to worry: While you're pondering, your waitress will keep you supplied with the makings of a fantastic build-your-own bruschetta: warm, crusty wheat bread and a bowl of exquisite chopped tomatoes, roasted garlic and olive oil. Every bite was a fantastic, garlic-infused sensation. We could have had seconds, but we were afraid we wouldn't have been able to stop.

Appetizers: 20/20

Our Gourmet: We ordered our appetizers while we thought through our entree combinations. I chose the Shrimp Scampi Pomodoro ($7), and I think our Teenaged Bottomless Pit would have been proud of me: I inhaled it, and was tempted to lick the plate clean. A dozen or so garlic-sauteed shrimp were served in a bowl of tomato-garlic-basil sauce, topped with shavings of parmesan cheese. The sauce seemed like a warm version of the delicious bruschetta topping we were served earlier, and adding the cheese to the mix made it even richer and more luxurious. And as if the sauce didn't provide enough garlic for one course, wedges of rustica bread, toasted and brushed with garlic butter, were served on the side. 10/10

The Dining Companion: It's been my experience that if you want the best calamari, you go to a seafood restaurant. Having tasted Ciao Pasta's calamari ($6), I have thrown that rule out the window. This version has jumped right up to No. 2 in the state in my book (Hooked is still No. 1, but it's a close call). The squid rings were lightly breaded and tender, fried just to the point of being cooked. Marinara and aioli sauces were provided for dipping. I believe my comment to OG was EVERY piece just seemed to melt in my mouth. 10/10

Entrees: 19/20

OG: After much deliberation, I chose the Wild Mushroom Agnolotti ($5), topped it with Vodka Rosa sauce ($5) and added meatballs ($3). The agnolotti were palm-sized rounds of pasta (larger than I expected), stuffed with chopped mushrooms and folded into half-moons. The creamy, pink/red sauce was very thick and rich — made slightly too rich, I thought, by the shaved parmesan melted into it on the top. The three meatballs, slightly larger than golf-ball sized, were of a fine consistency and wonderfully seasoned.

One drawback to the build-it-yourself approach is that you leave yourself open to second-guessing. In retrospect, I think my mushroom pasta, with its fairly delicate flavor, was overpowered by the rosa sauce; I think I'd top it with something simpler, like a garlic butter sauce, next time. 9/10

TDC: I was responsible for the delay in our ordering.... and I almost got it just right. My final selection was cracked pepper fetuccini ($4) with the garlic wine sauce ($4) and the Cajun salmon ($8). It was fantastic, but I think pesto might have been a better sauce choice. Still, as OG said, you second-guess your own combinations, not the fantastic selections themselves. The salmon was cooked to perfection, the pasta had the hint of peppercorns that made it perfect, and the garlic wine sauce was to die for. 10/10

Desserts: 16/20

OG: After all the great food we had enjoyed, I was running out of room when dessert time came. But duty called, and so I ordered a cannoli, with a white-chocolate ricotta filling, raspberry sauce and a touch of whipped cream. The shell was crispy and flaky, and I enjoyed the filling, with an interesting texture that seemed to vary from creamy to grainy from one bite to the next. 8/10

TDC: I ordered the Creme Brulee and found a wonderful end to a great meal. It was thick and creamy, but I did find the sugar coating a bit thicker and heavier than I'm used to. 8/10

All the Rest: 18/20

It occurred to us that the build-your-own approach could lead to some less than ideal combinations, but we're confident that the waitstaff would give you heads up before you committed to anything truly unappetizing. Then again, based on everything we tasted, even the strangest combination would probably turn out great.

If you're motoring in to Franklin from Interstate 93 Exit 19 as we did, you will pass Ciao Pasta's second location, in a shopping center in Northfield. It's got slightly different hours and looks like it might be a little bigger than the original. Same menu, same website.

We were pleased with the portions — ample, but not excessive — and the pricing: Our three-course dinner for two, with a glass of wine and coffees, came to $67. The service seemed a bit slow, but we were there at prime time on a Saturday night. Our waitress knew her stuff and was very helpful.

One thing we love about this job is the chance to get out and see places around the state that we might not have a reason to visit otherwise. Franklin is one of those places, and Ciao Pasta is a great reason to go there. We're glad we did.

Total: 93/100



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