Everyone’s favorite carbohydrate is going in new directions—and getting back to basics.
It used to be that all pasta menus were created more or less equal: spaghetti with meat sauce, fettucini alfredo, maybe a linguine with clam sauce. But no more. These days, restaurants are taking this familiar starch to new heights, using its mild flavor, approachable reputation, and long history as a blank slate for innovation.
“Pasta is the ultimate carrier of comfort food,” says chef Richard Keys, cofounder of Food & Drink Resources, a culinary development company. “We’re trying to evolve pasta beyond what people know it to be.” As Keys puts it, it’s about pulling comfort forward. That might mean simple changes like new cuts and shapes, or smaller pastas that can take the place of rice as a carrier for Indian dishes. Or it might mean introducing new flavors, like a pork carnitas pasta, tikka masala pasta, or a chimichurri sauce over pasta. Keys is also experimenting with incorporating soft cheeses like Ricotta flavored with garlic or chili.
Riccardo Felicetti, president of the International Pasta Organisation, is seeing a rise in regional curiosity. Traditional shapes like fusilloni, conchiglioni, and spaghettoni—“oni” means big—are increasing in demand. That pasta is growing in high-end restaurants at all is notable, Felicetti says. Ten to 15 years ago, in Italy, “we had pasta only in specific kinds of restaurants, never in starred restaurants,” he says. “You could have it at home. You went to a starred restaurant for foie gras or caviar or whatever you couldn’t have at home.”
At pasta brand Barilla, one of chef Lorenzo Boni’s favorite dishes is the classic Roman-style Cacio e Pepe, which uses a different, milder heat: black pepper.
“That’s a big hit right now,” he says. Indeed, it’s even being experimented with by global chefs like David Chang, whose new restaurant Nishi features Ceci e Pepe, a riff on the classic made with chickpea pasta. Boni makes his with bucatini, a popular choice right now. People also love long cuts of pasta, he says, and bucatini is newer to people and has a thicker, meatier texture than spaghetti. Barilla’s is extruded through a bronze die for a rougher surface.
On the shorter end of the spectrum, shapes like casarecce, a Sicilian pasta long considered traditional in Italy, is gaining on the U.S. market, Boni says. It’s often served with Sicilian pesto, made with Ricotta, tomatoes, almonds, olive oil, and basil. It’s also great with seafood, like a swordfish and eggplant ragout. “It pairs well with sun-kissed sauces and smooth pestos,” Boni says.
Silvia Cianci, chef at Missouri-based pasta producer Louisa Foods, says another riff on the classic spaghetti that’s now popping up is spaghetti alla chitarra. Chitarra translates to “guitar,” and the pasta gets its name from the instrument that’s used to cut it, which looks similar to the chords of a guitar. Sheets of pasta are pressed through the “chords,” creating a square (instead of round) pasta. In Cianci’s native Abruzzo region of Italy, it’s typically served with shrimp, crab, mussels, cherry tomatoes, parsley, and garlic.
Cianci is also a fan of agnolotti del plin right now, which features tiny, pinched ravioli typically stuffed with veal and cabbage. Indeed, Cianci is seeing a rise in the use of vegetables within pasta, especially bitter ones like cabbage, cauliflower, and escarole. With meat, she’s seeing a tendency toward intense, lengthy preparations, like braised lamb.
Today, Cianci is working on developing a porchetta ravioli. Risotto is also being implemented in a lot of menus, she says, even in non-Italian applications. “Americans do not recognize it as a main dish, but they serve it with a protein and it works really well,” she says. Plus, leftovers make for a great dish in its own right: arancini, which are rice balls that are coated in breadcrumbs and then fried.
At Macchialina in Miami, chef Michael Pirolo says the team makes their own pasta by hand, making both traditional pastas and its own creative takes. “There used to be way more rules about how you eat pasta,” Pirolo says. “Now I feel like pasta means more soulful cooked dishes.”
He adds that there are many misperceptions about pasta in the U.S., namely that dry pasta is inferior. There are some situations in which dry pasta is better, he says, and some in which it’s better fresh.
“Aglio olio with peperoncino (garlic and oil) or puttanesca, I prefer with a dry pasta because the al dente texture works better,” Pirolo says. “Bolognese pairs better with a fresh tagliatelle because of the richness in the dough.”
Like Macchialina, more restaurants are making their own pasta in-house. But Cianci cautions that “making pasta isn’t as easy as people think it is.” You need the right kind of flour and the right proportion of flour to eggs; the dough must be kneaded in a way that does not break down the gluten when left to rest. “Making pasta is tying someone to it for like eight hours,” she says.
Stephen Kalt, chef and owner of Spartina in Los Angeles, can attest to that. He makes trofie, a short, twisted pasta, and it takes him three hours to make a dozen portions. “And I’m good,” he says. He’s been making it seven days a week for three months. “I only just taught one of my guys how to make it. I’ve got to get other people engaged in the process.”
He introduced the pasta to his menu after a member of his kitchen staff made a Calabrian pork ragout one evening with pork neck and prosciutto scraps. Enthusiastic about the dish, Kalt set out to find a pasta that would match it. He settled on the handmade Calabrian shape. Once he started making it, he showed his staff so that they could understand the work involved and communicate the artisanship to the guests.
“That’s a very exciting process, making something and getting the guests excited,” he says. “The artisan nature of these shapes and this type of pasta-making is where the challenge lies and what makes it truly interesting. If you want to call that an innovation to go back to the origin, that’s where I think the edge of pasta is going.” Spartina now makes nine other fresh pastas on a maple-top table dedicated to the task. Kalt can be found there making pasta three hours before service.
Doug Psaltis, chef and partner of RPM Italian, also believes that these time-honored processes are experiencing a new moment of popularity. “I think people are working harder and harder to learn the old-school techniques of hand-made pasta from forgotten recipes,” he says. At RPM, Psaltis and his team make all the pasta in-house: extruded, hand-cut, handmade, and stuffed. Psaltis also enjoys using grain flours like rye and farro flours.
Chef Erling Wu-Bower of Chicago’s Nico Osteria says there’s a reason Italians have been cooking pasta a certain way for millennia: It’s delicious. “I hope that American cooks learn the classics, respect them, and do very slight riffs on them,” he says. Nico Osteria makes all of its pasta in-house, as well. One of Wu-Bower’s favorite ingredients at the moment is squid ink, which he mixes into a dough of coarse semolina and white wine for a “strange yet addictive floral note.”
“It’s a great canvas for many dishes, from spring vegetables to octopus ragout,” he says.
In building his menu, Kalt seeks dishes that are interesting but accessible. For instance, he says, “Everybody likes spaghetti and tomato sauce. If I don’t want to do that, but I want that flavor profile, I offer it in a slightly different way.” That means fazzoletto, a kerchief-shaped pasta, served with roasted plum and San Marzano tomatoes and whipped Ricotta for creaminess. Presenting such flavors in unique ways creates experiences for guests and takes them out of their comfort zones, he says. “Customers are now more eager for those sorts of experiences.”
Seasonality also plays a large role in the menu, from fresh spring pencil asparagus to squab ragout with rhubarb. “I try to take what I know is known and traditional and look around and see what influences me, and add things from the market that I think will enhance the flavor and experience without being so challenging for people,” he says. “I don’t believe you need to challenge people on the plate all the time.”
The health reputation around pasta is responsible for a lot of its bad press—and much of it is misconception. “The biggest misconception about pasta is that it makes people fat, which is crazy,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, an organization that promotes health through cultural food traditions and lifestyles. “Excess calories make people fat.”
In fact, pasta has many health advantages. It’s low-glycemic, which means that it scores low on the Glycemic Index, a measure of how much a carbohydrate raises blood sugar. Bread has a GI index of 70–80, Baer-Sinnott says, but pasta hits only 42–45. This is because of the way it’s made: As pasta dough is extruded through dies, its starch structures are compacted, which means it doesn’t digest as quickly. (The rolling process has a similar effect.) Slow digestion helps people feel fuller longer. Plus, it’s a great partner for under-consumed vegetables, beans, and legumes. “You have to work hard to find something not healthy to go with pasta,” she says.