Andrew Tonry
Pasta Bangs
3950 N Mississippi

Pasta Bangs has only been open for a month, but it's already bustling with customers. The latest addition to North Mississippi, the small, yet airy bistro is shaped like a boxcar, a narrow storefront filled with comfortable booths and inviting atmosphere.

The food, much like the interior design, is candid and straightforward. You get exactly what they advertise: Pasta heaped in piles onto giant plates.

But there's something else that makes Pasta Bangs really unique.

Two years ago, Polly Bangs, the owner, was working with street kids at New Avenues for Youth, a downtown social service agency. It was during this time she happened upon a TV documentary about the Naked Chef--Jamie Oliver, a culinary wunderkind from London. After huge successes in Europe's finest restaurants, Oliver decided to chuck it and start his own restaurant. His personal spin, though, would be mentoring and employing 15 homeless men and women as his staff.

Watching the documentary, an epiphany hit Bangs: Why not open a restaurant in Portland that hires and trains homeless youth? Bangs has done just that. Every three months, she will hire, train, and employ four street kids, giving them skills they'll take with them once the period is over. After only a few weeks, Bangs is already halfway through the first cycle. And, she reports, with very few bumps, so far the program has been a smashing success.

Before opening each night, the staff has their own family style dinner. Bangs also works with the teens to help with resume building and honing their job-hunting skills for the time when the restaurant sends them back out into the world. She says that it truly has become a family of sorts.

But even if you aren't familiar with Pasta Bangs' heartwarming kumbaya, this camaraderie is readily apparent. The staff is warm and friendly. Even first-time visitors are treated like regulars.

The food is equally welcoming, if not startlingly inventive. It is, of course, almost exclusively various ruminations on pasta, though the appetizers and salads provide some latitude. The calamari is buttery, the steamed clams are plump and have just the right snap, and there are a variety of salads--mixed greens with hazelnuts and Gorgonzola, a creamy Caesar with homemade dressing, and a roasted beet salad drizzled with balsamic. Pasta Bangs' marinara sauce is flavorful and not too sweet, and the mussels in creamy Vodka sauce are deliciously rich and naughty. One of the more dynamic dishes, the spicy sausage and roasted red pepper pesto over penne, impressed me with the intense bite of garlic, quieted nicely by a mellow creaminess. Notably, many of Pasta Bangs' dishes include seafood, so pesco-vegetarians should find themselves amply sated.

If you're searching for something besides pasta, you might look elsewhere. But, if you're craving a huge, socially conscious plate of noodles, Pasta Bangs really hits the spot.