Sometimes, it pays to take a risk - like when the love of your life is about to board an airplane to Botswana, or when you decide to wear Tevas to the office. But most of the time, it’s better to play it safe. This is especially true when it comes to restaurants. Doing something out of the ordinary can be appealing, because risk-taking gets a lot of attention, but really, success most often comes from the consistent execution of a formula.
This is mainly because consistency is difficult, especially in the face of change. No one knows this better than the people at Union, the little Italian spot in Old Town Pasadena. They opened in 2014 and were one of the most popular restaurants in LA, but after losing their big-deal, TV-competition chef a few years later, things could have gone downhill. Instead, Union got even better - they’re making some of the best-tasting Italian food we’ve ever had.
At first, a meal at Union seems like a pretty standard experience. The server will let you know that everything from the pasta to the porchetta is made in-house, and the menu is mostly Italian comfort food, including grilled peaches and stracciatella, pork meatballs, a selection of pastas, and several meat entrees. But ordering is the last time anything feels standard. Because from the first dish - the burrata with tomato and anchovy pesto - until the last taste - more than likely when you pick up the bowl to scrape up the last bit of blueberry and polenta dessert - this is one of the most consistently great meals in Los Angeles County, and unquestionably worth the trek for anyone who considers getting on the 134 to be a “road trip.”
That consistency is what’s most impressive about Union (well that, and how perfectly cooked the mushroom polenta is). There’s not a clunky dish on the menu. Four people could come, share everything, and each have a different favorite. It might be the octopus - perfectly cooked to be both crunchy and tender, and served with a creamy lobster jus so good that we practically bit off a server’s hand when he tried to take it away before we had finished. Or it could be those wild mushrooms over creamy polenta with a touch of vinegar and truffle butter. It could even be the simple grilled peach appetizer with stracciatella, which tastes so fresh we suspect there’s a peach and stracciatella tree somewhere back in that kitchen.
And that’s to say nothing of the pastas, which are the reason most people are here in the first place. There are usually seven of them, and they are all exceptional, especially the tonnarelli cacio e pepe, squid ink lumache with truffle and lobster, and torchetti with pork ragu and fried rosemary.
The reason that Union still fills up every single night - despite turnover of the kitchen staff, and competition from flashier restaurants opening in sexier places than the suburbs - is that you get exactly what you want every single time. It’s consistent, and it’s consistently fantastic. And that’s all we’d ever ask for.
It’s fancy tomato pesto with homemade bread and burrata. Can you go wrong? No, you cannot.
For some reason, this dish is called Wild Mushrooms. The mushrooms are good, but the polenta is fantastic. So we’re renaming it The Only Polenta You’ll Ever Eat.
The octopus in this dish is cooked absolutely perfectly - it’s both crunchy, salty, and flavorful, but not dry, and comes with an almondy paste, lobster jus, and fried salami.
If any dish at Union is going to really surprise you, it’s the saffron linguini - we were imagining something very different when we read there was uni in it, but it tasted a lot like an all’amatriciana, with the uni adding some excellent saltiness to the dish. It’s our favorite pasta of them all.
The tonnerelli is so big, it almost looks like udon. It tastes like a grown-up mac and cheese. You’ll like it.
Squid ink pasta scares us off sometimes - not because we don’t like to think about things that are harvested from “sacs,” but because we’re not always sure squid ink adds much to a dish. This lumache, on the other hand, goes perfectly with the lobster tossed with fennel, lemon, and truffle butter.
Something about frying rosemary immediately makes us way more excited about it. Regular rosemary reminds us of sad pork loins. Fried rosemary will always remind us of this pork ragu.
It’s as big as a Frisbee and large enough to feed an Ultimate Frisbee team. We think. Honestly, we have no idea how many people are on an Ultimate Frisbee team. Anyway, the porchetta is crispy, tender, and has tons of flavor. It’s not always available, but if it is, order it.