If you love Italian food — eating it, cooking it, shopping for it — you know Buon’Italia. The Chelsea Market Italian-foods emporium is a favorite among Italophiles for its obscure pasta brands, dynamite Calabrian-pepper spreads, and Parmigiano-Reggianos of upstanding character and varying vintages. It was a Little Eataly before there was Eataly. Less commonly known is its hidden prepared-foods kitchen, Zia Tonia, where Tonia Magliulo, who owns the store with her husband, Mimmo, has been pan-frying chicken cutlets and rolling meatballs since the days when the former Nabisco factory was as much manufacturing hub as food hall.
This cucina — Tonia’s home kitchen away from home — became even harder to find a year and a half ago, when Buon’Italia was relocated to the market’s basement, the grocery-geared annex called Chelsea Local. While the new space is polished and shiny, it still feels undiscovered by the starving tourist masses—a good thing if you relish shopping and snacking in relative peace and quiet, less so if you’re one of the transplanted stores.
In an attempt to lure these folk down the stairs and into the shop, Mimmo recently augmented his wife’s repertoire with cooked-to-order, customizable fresh pastas in a range of shapes and sauces, all plucked from the store’s refrigerator cases. While the idea might seem trendy at the moment — after all, Pasta Flyer and the Sosta had similar notions — the Magliulos can point to an even earlier inspiration: Mimmo’s brother Tony May, the pioneering restaurateur and Italian-food champion who experimented with fast-casual insta-pasta at last century’s PastaBreak.
At BuonItalia’s Pasta Bar, a.k.a. the kitchen counter, you choose from four durum-wheat varieties, four fresh-egg pastas, two gluten-free options, and a dozen housemade sauces. Though it’s officially no-holds-barred mix and match, some pairings work better than others. Slender, twirled Ligurian trofie was destined for pesto; sturdy paccheri stands up to puttanesca and amatriciana; pappardelle wears its textbook Bolognese the way James Bond wears Savile Row suits. But for the U.G.’s money ($11 a plate, with a couple $3.50 seafood-sauce supplements), the shapes that will be hardest to resist on return visits include ravioli fashioned more like candy-wrapper-style caramelle, stuffed with porcini, then slicked with butter and sage. And, new to us, laganari: long, squared-off strands of Puglian pasta as springy as a Sealy Posturepedic. (Try it with the bianchetti sauce, tiny fish with garlic and bread crumbs.)
Notwithstanding the setting (basement grocery store), dishware (compostable), and seating (out in the hallway), this is restaurant-quality pasta, deftly cooked and modestly priced. And although Buon’Italia isn’t licensed to serve wine, the barista-cashier over by the coffee bar-checkout area pulls a top-notch Italian-style espresso—short, rich, and almost sweet.
Buon’Italia, 75 Ninth Ave., at 15th St., lower level; 212-633-9090.
*A version of this article appears in the February 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!