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story.lead_photo.caption Lunch specials -- including this Pesto Chicken with penne -- come with a side salad, a piece of garlic bread and a 12-ounce beverage (tea, water or lemonade) at Pasta J Italian in the River Market's Ottenheimer Market Hall. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison

The Pasta J Italian kiosk occupies the corner of the River Market Ottenheimer Market Hall; its most recent tenant was Katmandu MoMo. It's an offshoot of the Pasta J Italian restaurant at 1314 Green St., Benton. There's no connection with restaurants of similar names in Bryant or (now closed) in west Little Rock.

The kiosk houses a stove, a fast-heating salamander and a small version of the "oven" through which places like Domino's cook their pizzas. (No pizza here, but you can get it by the pie or the slice at Jay's on the other side of the Market Hall.)

The menu is limited — a baker's half-dozen pasta dishes that the Benton restaurant serves as lunch specials, salads, four sub sandwiches and a kids' menu (what kids want: tortellini and spaghetti). But the quality isn't limited.

Given that it's "fast" Italian, and served in reheatable plastic instead of on porcelain plates, we'd put this stuff up against almost anybody's "cucina." And the price is certainly reasonable: lunch specials include a side soaked salad, a piece of garlic bread and a 12-ounce cup-and-ice beverage (tea, water or lemonade) for $8.50. (Chicken Alfredo with Penne is $9.)

The Pasta J pasta is firm, not quite al dente (but whose around here is?) and most of it comes in a respectable chunky marinara sauce. We had it on the cheese tortellini, the cheese ravioli (spinach and beef are other options) and, with the 79-cent worthwhile addition of some mushrooms, the spaghetti. (Other spaghetti sauce options are meat and meatballs. Alfredo sauce is an 89-cent substitution. Other 79-cent add-ons: jalapenos and broccoli.)

Gallery: Pasta J Italian, River Market

The Pesto Chicken with penne wasn't just good, it was exceptional — plenty of firm pasta, tossed with good-size, moist and tasty chicken chunks in a zippy pesto in which we could discern flavors of basil, garlic and Parmesan plus perceptible bits of pine nuts.

Portion sizes are very large — with the salad, a couple of times when we weren't especially hungry, it was too much food.

We didn't indulge in any of the subs ($7.99, including chips, pickle and pepperoncini pepper), but we'll get there eventually. The options certainly look good: Meatball marinara; Italian sausage with bell peppers, onions and mozzarella; pesto chicken; and 3-Meat Italian (salami, pepperoni and Canadian bacon with olives and mozzarella).

Top a salad ($5.99 large, $3.99 small) with chicken ($8.59, $5.99) or crab ($8.59, $7.49). As-yet unsampled desserts include New York Mini Cheesecake ($2.09), New York Mini Turtle Cheesecake ($2.49) and Tiramisu with a chocolate glaze ($4.99).

The operation is efficient and fairly fast. Order, pay via an iPad point-of-sale device, get a number and a drink cup — pour your own tea, water or lemonade. Other soft drinks, bottled water and juice are $1 or a la carte with one of the subs. Just about all of our orders took five minutes or less to come back across the counter.

Weekend on 08/15/2019

Pasta J Italian — River Market

Address: River Market Ottenheimer Market Hall, 400 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Cuisine: Italian

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Take-out: Yes

Reservations: No

Wheelchair access: Yes

(501) 326-2990

Print Headline: CHEAP EATS: Pasta J brings ‘cucina’ to River Market

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