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Andrew Stephen Cebulka, Heirloom Photography

Italian Pasta Dishes Welcome the World

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Resist your yawn. Chefs from South Carolina to Seattle are finding new ways to be creative with pasta.
By Lisa Rogak May 2011 Menu Innovations

Everyone loves pasta, but for chefs and managers, it’s easy to fall into a rut. After all, why shake things up when your pasta dishes are already popular?

From a customer’s perspective there is ample reason to make the investment in terms of time and money. Tweaking your mainstays creates new excitement among regulars and occasional diners, which can then increase the frequency of repeat visits. Among your staff, any time that front- or back-of-the-house employees get jazzed about a new offering, they can’t help but convey their enthusiasm to the customer.

It’s Seasonal

In keeping with the white-hot trend of using ingredients that are in season and grown locally, Chef Walter Pisano of Tulio Ristorante in Seattle uses ingredients that are both fresh and local to inspire him in creating new pasta dishes.

“For us, innovation is really about incorporating seasonal ingredients,” he says. “Overall, we’re seeing a trend toward lighter-sauced pastas, which really allow the flavor of the pasta to come through. But what I really see happening around the country is a new focus on using simple and fresh seasonal food that’s based more on taste than on presentation.”

Meg Colleran Sahs, chef di cucina at Chicago’s Terzo Piano, a casual restaurant founded by James Beard-award-winning chef Tony Mantuano, also keeps an eye out for the freshest in local ingredients. But in one of her new dishes she tweaks the pasta itself.

She’s particularly fond of her farro pappardelle with turkey confit, tomato, rosemary, arugula, sheep’s milk cheese, and crispy farro. Why farro, a chewy grain that’s often confused with spelt?

“The great thing about using farro instead of flour when making pasta is that it’s a whole grain that is rich in protein, complex B vitamins, and simple and complex carbohydrates,” Sahs says. “It’s healthier and easier to cook since, unlike some other whole grains, you don’t have to soak it overnight.”

Ethnic Variety

While Italian is the most common ethnic cuisine when it come to pasta, there are many chefs who are pushing the envelope and trying to encourage people to think about other flavors as well. Among them is Jose De Mereilles, who runs Le Marais in New York City, a kosher French brasserie. (Who knew there was such a beast?) So it should be no surprise that he looks far afield when it comes to his pasta offerings, whether as entrées or accompaniments.

Case in point: his braised lamb and spaetzle, the latter a German specialty.

“When we decided to put braised lamb on the menu, we were seeking a dish that would complement it without relying on potatoes or rice dishes that are too common,” he says. At first, he considered using couscous since it pairs well with lamb, but since the restaurant already had a trailblazing reputation, De Mereilles knew he needed a pasta that would follow the same path. That’s where the spaetzle came in. But before confirming his decision, he looked not only at the taste but also the texture and ease of handling on the part of the customer.

“Spaetzle has the ability to really absorb the flavors of the broth that it’s cooked in,” he says. “At the same time, it also has a great texture that is small and easy enough to put on a fork but not too big to distract like spaghetti.”

On the other hand, since couscous is round and small, it tends to fall off the fork, but the spaetzle easily stays on the fork so you can also get a bite of the lamb at the same time.” 

He didn’t stop there. While many chefs would choose a simple mushroom sauce or gravy that would complement the delicate flavor of the lamb while providing a hearty sauce to the spaetzle, De Mereilles threw out the playbook and turned to rosemary.

“It’s more fragrant, and we thought it made for a better fit,” he says.

Gluten-Free & Vegan

Of course you’d have to be sleeping under a rock for the last few years to not know that an increasing number of chefs are offering up pasta in whole wheat, gluten-free, and even vegan varieties. While vegan and whole-wheat dishes are not on the menu at Le Marais, since De Mereilles says the consistency is not yet where he would like it to be, he does offer the spaetzle and any other pasta on the menu with roasted vegetables sans meat upon request.

Others, however, are bravely going where many fear to venture. Some of these pioneers are full-blooded Italians. Sisters Carla and Christine Pallotta run nebo, an upscale Italian restaurant in the North End of Boston, otherwise known as Little Italy. A couple of years ago, they began to experiment with turning their popular wheat-based homemade pastas into gluten-free varieties. The response was so successful that the sisters decided to add a few gluten-free pastas to the regular menu and were surprised to discover that patrons began to request the wheat-free pastas over the standard ones.

Perhaps the highest form of praise came when the sisters were chosen to appear on Throwdown with Bobby Flay, where their zucchini lasagna competed head-to-head with the popular Food Network chef’s version—and won.

“The reason we won on Throwdown is because of the simplicity of the flavors,” Carla says. “In fact, all of the recipes on nebo’s menu have simple, clean flavors. We don’t like to use many spices or complex sauces, and as a result, all of the flavors in our zucchini lasagna can be clearly tasted in each layer.”                        

Like the Pallottas, Chef Gonzalo Rivera of Lucca at the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Boca Raton, Florida, likes to experiment when it comes to using standard ingredients like unbleached flour and semolina to make pasta; recent tests include using rye and buckwheat. At the same time, he is delving into a few molecular cuisine techniques.

“I’m using foams and transparent pastas that are made with agar agar and other gums,” he says. In one example, he makes a carrot and ginger purée that is fortified with agar agar or mussel jus, and then rolls it out thinly before cutting it into various shapes. “We’re also using different proteins that you normally wouldn’t see in pastas, like squab and rabbit,” he says. “While they can be very gamey, they can also be very tasty when done right.” 

Chef Staffan Terje, Swedish-born chef of Perbacco, an Italian fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco, is a staunch traditionalist when it comes to sourcing new ideas for his pasta dishes. Terje, who has cooked at the James Beard House in New York, focuses onserving authentic cuisine from the Piedmont region of Italy, with the idea following traditional form when it comes to shape and flavor. That’s all, however, not without a little twist.

He takes flavors and ingredients that are traditional for other regional dishes but haven’t been used in a pasta dish previously, whether as a filling or sauce. For example, he recently filled a traditional agnolotti—a type of ravioli—with a roasted bone marrow fonduta. The pasta shape and the filling are both traditional to the Piedmont region, but making the filling with roasted bone marrow—and adding a little Parmesan—is the surprise.

“I don’t cook with ingredients because they are cool or trendy,” Terje says. “I always like to refer to history. If I can find the ideas in old recipes, then I feel like I’m evolving because I use history and tradition as a foundation, and with that type of foundation, the food will always taste authentic.”

Terje offers pasta tastings to customers, where a table can sample a variety.

“Each guest is given a plate with two or three pastas, which allows them to sample the pasta and share their opinions,” he says, adding that the experience only enhances a night out and encourages repeat business.

Play With Your Food

Chef Doug Svec of Social Restaurant + Wine Bar in Charleston, South Carolina, likes to play with his food, combining different cuisines. One recent dish followed the same lines as a noodle kugel. After preparing a cold soba noodle recipe, Svec cooled the noodles, pressed them into a pan, and then cut the block into squares. He plated each square with a side of fresh pea and marinated eggplant salad, drizzled with yuzu white truffle and soy.

One of Social’s most popular pasta dishes is Thai shrimp scampi: House-made fettuccine with a sauce of white wine and a compound butter of Asian roots, chili sauce, chili paste, fish sauce, and fresh herbs, which is served with shrimp, local oyster mushrooms, and seasonal vegetables. “I love Asian noodle dishes,” Svec says, who is formally trained in Italian cuisine. “Asian flavors meld well with the fundamentals of a simple scampi dish.”

On the Horizon 

For a food that’s been plated for centuries, these most recent culinary innovations are undoubtedly its last. For Chef Terje, it’s back to the future, since he considers his reinterpretation of Piemontese pasta to be a never-ending journey. “I love to research old recipes and source cookbooks to pull old recipes and bring them back into a new context,” he says. “To me, it’s all about re-introducing foods and taking something traditional and bringing it back into modern-day cuisine.”

De Mereilles of Le Maraiswants to puta pasta-based dessert on the menu, but he has not yet found the perfect recipe. 

“We’re currently testing a chocolate hazelnut ravioli or dumpling,” he says.

Perhaps Chef Svec says it best: “If the pasta is made in-house by a chef who customers know and trust, they’re much more willing to experiment. This, in turn, allows chefs to flex their creative muscles in new and exciting ways.”

To be considered for a feature, contact Restaurant Mangement’s editor, Ellen Koteff, at Ellen@rmgtmagazine.com.