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February 18. 2014 3:00PM

Our Gourmet: A lot to like at Pizza Loft in downtown Milford

Pasta Loft

241 Union Square, Milford; 672-2270; www.pastaloft.com

Open: Dining rooms: Monday-Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday until 9:30 p.m.; Sunday noon to 8:30 p.m. Pizzeria: Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday to 11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday to midnight; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

Cuisine: Italian/American

Pricing: Salads: $7.95-$9.95 plus add-ons; Appetizers: $3.95 to $11.95; entrees $9.95-$21.95; brick-oven pizza: $11.95-$15.95.

Handicap access: Not easy; stairs to loft, tight quarters downstairs.

Scores for Pasta Loft
Service:
14/20

Menu: 18/20

Ambience: 14/20

Variety: 16/20

Bonus: 18/20 (Frugal Fare dinners $14.95)

TOTAL: 80/100

Restaurant Location:

241 Union Square, Milford, NH

Milford's charming and industrious downtown concentration of stores and shops boasts any number of varied commercial enterprises and refreshments, from gift shops to barber shops to restaurants and taverns to insurance firms, all clustered around a serious veterans memorial and an Oval — traffic circle — which is neither oval nor circular.

But, no matter, the traffic moves smartly within the rules of traffic circles, there actually IS ample parking on the Oval and side streets, and all sorts of destinations to which town visitors or locals can walk.

In the Taste of Milford ticketed foodie extravaganza, nearly two dozen local restaurants and businesses participated to raise money for town improvements, and Pasta Loft, being so centrally located, drew more attention and patrons than it does on a regular weekend night.

We recently ventured upstairs into the loft for a full-course meal that not only satisfied, but left us with a new appreciation of what a small town and local restaurant can do with the heart to make it happen.

Entering the Pasta Loft you are struck by the distinct New England tavern feel. In the downstairs bar and eatery, chicken wings and sales on beer are staples some nights, along with brick-oven pizza, calzones and all manner of pub food on the large menu.

But upstairs, the atmosphere changes dramatically, with a pair low-lit dining rooms, one with a small bar, about 15 tables and suited waiters serving from a menu that encompasses sea, sand, turf and barnyard in tasty combinations.

We were seated next to a window overlooking the Oval — warm and comfortable, despite small drafts from the walls and windows of the aged building.

On nights when live music is on stage downstairs, we suspect quiet is not the case, but this night it was — perhaps the music started later.

We perused the menu while Bruno, our server, brought us drinks (the Loft has a formidable wine list), and we elected to start with a large bowl of steamed mussels ($9.95) to share.

The 1.5-pound serving of steamy shellfish was more than large enough to satisfy two, and the garlic-shallot sweet sherry broth was tasty enough that we used spoons to gather as much per bite as we could. Soon there was nothing left but an empty plate of shells and a small, untouched bowl of marsala sauce, provided as the standard accompaniment but entirely unnecessary.

Warm crusty French bread, much like sourdough, dipped in warmed olive oil with just a couple of garlic slices (easy on the garlic, well done) accompanied our appetizer nicely.

Entrees at the Loft come with Italian Wedding Soup, salad, and a side of pasta or potato or rice. That is a nice lineup for hungry diners, but perhaps too much for those who enjoy appetizers off the menu.

The soup was nearly the standout of the entire meal. Herbs and spices, meatballs, tiny pastas and carrots made this soup one of the better versions we've had. It's on the menu at $4.95 per bowl ($3.95 per cup) and would be a terrific afternoon warm-up as the Granite State winter drags on.

The house salads were standard, small but sufficient, with a light and slightly tart creamy Italian house dressing.

The main courses were standout.

Filet and Lobster Bearnaise, at $20.95, is one of the most expensive items on the menu, but I was in the mood for surf and turf, and this dish enticed me. A healthy portion of fresh lobster meat was piled atop two sizeable, 2-inch-thick tenderloin filets, with the lobster topped with creamy — but still light — bearnaise sauce, and the tenderloins perched atop sliced garlic toast. The toast had soaked up the beef's tasty natural juice, and accompanied by a good-sized portion of fresh steamed broccoli, this was a filler, killer dinner. The tenderloin (medium-rare) was super tender; the lobster was generously sauced, not smothered, and a side of spaghetti with just butter and garlic added just the right starch to accompany.

My Gourmet partner opted for Seafood Pie Florentine ($19.95), which featured a whole catch of seafood baked with a delicious spinach herb cheese mixture.

Baked seafood pie at a lot of restaurants is not a dish that one might call light. But not so at Pasta Loft, where the spinach herb cheese features nice pieces of fresh leaf spinach, a subtle cheese and herb combination and just a dusting of bread crumbs, while the makeup of the dish and careful preparation enables its main ingredients — Gulf shrimp, haddock, lobster scallops — to shine. And it is a large dish, loaded with seafood and with an aromatic presence that bespeaks quality.

On the side, a plate of grilled vegetables also shined brightly. Large pieces of cut-up veggies — eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers, carrots — were grilled to the point that most every piece carried grill marks, but not charring. Each piece was thoroughly cooked, slightly crispy on the outside and strong in its basic, natural flavor. Just a side dish, yes, but worth noting and entirely delicious.

A slice of Tiramisu to share for dessert boasted creamy, fluffy cake and a filling bursting with the rich flavors or cocoa, cream and expresso.

Pasta Loft benefits from the best of several worlds in the center of Milford. The bar crowd that can spread out and enjoy drinks, pub food, TV sports and live entertainment; weekend visitors looking to warm up with a lunch or afternoon bowl of soup; families taking advantage of a good children's menu (all $5.95); and the upstairs dinner crowd that wants a full gourmet dinner or a Frugal Fare entree (all $14.95) featuring soup or salad and dinners from swordfish to ribs to steak tips and fancy salads with salmon.

It's all there at the Pasta Loft, in Milford or its other location in Hampstead, and we give it a solid recommendation.


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