September 23, 2018, 0:02

The Restaurants Trying to Shake Up Pasta |

The Restaurants Trying to Shake Up Pasta |

The bar for pasta in New York has been set especially high in recent
years, thanks to a wave of chefs who’ve carefully honed classics and
invented new ones. I dream, almost daily, of Rita Sodi’s sumptuous cacio
e pepe at Via Carota, in the West Village, and of Missy Robbins’s
playful spin, at Lilia, in Williamsburg, on that same dish: thick,
ruffle-edged mafaldini—a shape of noodle named, according to legend, for
an Italian princess—coated in Parmesan and coarsely ground pink
peppercorns. The field is crowded, the competition fierce, the demand
high—everybody loves pasta. How, then, is a restaurateur to corner the

At a new West Village restaurant called Raviolo, the tactic is to offer
what is perhaps the city’s first “Italian dim sum,” a concept we never
knew we needed. (Spoiler alert: we don’t.) This means, mostly, ravioli:
two or four pieces to an order, arrayed neatly on small plates. Left
undressed, with sides of red sauce or melted cheese for dipping, it’s
pasta for the Instagram age, each raviolo shaped like a little round
hat, or a wrapped candy with twisted ends, or a pointy wonton, and made
with dough ranging in color from olive green (spinach or parsley) to
glossy gray (squid ink) to muted mauve (tomato). A huge neon sign on the
wall of the tiny, triangular dining room reading “Life is a combination
of magic and pasta”—not the work of a millennial branding agency, it
turns out, but a quote from Federico Fellini—further betrays the
restaurant’s desperation to go viral. On a recent evening, a model-type
complied, taking pictures of the battery-powered light-up ice cubes in
her cocktail as she bobbed her head to late-nineties hits like Will
Smith’s “Miami.” Meanwhile, a request for a Bicicletta, the traditional
Campari-and-white-wine aperitif, which was listed on the menu, was met
with a blank stare and a muttered, “Uhhh . . . let me see if we have that.”

Most of the ravioli I tried were satisfying enough, taut-skinned, plump,
and filled with comfort foods like eggplant Parmesan; minced Parma ham
and bread crumbs; and a tangy risotto made with Prosecco and scamorza
cheese. But a menu crafted so single-mindedly around a gimmick has got
to transcend it. The Cocktail Gamberi ravioli (Italian for shrimp
cocktail), propped in a Martini glass, were unconvincing as pasta, dry
and unwieldy, the dough barely containing the crustaceans. The puffy
“bun-boloni,” a portmanteau of Chinese steamed buns and the Italian
doughnuts known as bomboloni, served in bamboo steamers and filled
with a paltry squirt of pesto or cacio-e-pepe sauce, were more
cartoonish than creative. In matters of both magic and pasta, Raviolo
falls short.

Just southward, in SoHo, at Sola Pasta Bar—whose chef, Massimo Sola, earned a Michelin star at a restaurant in Rome—pasta is theatre, with
more successful results. The kitchen is in the center of the dining
room, a square pit encircled by a countertop and stools, affording
diners access to the kind of show usually limited to sushi bars and
short-order diners. Each time an order is placed, a chef tosses a
heaping scoop of ragù or a glug of olive oil and a handful of mushrooms
into a pan that fits snuggly into an induction stovetop pocked with
concave depressions, designed originally for woks. While the sauce
cooks, a stainless-steel basket with a handle, filled with fresh or
dried pasta, gets dunked in a vat of boiling water, like French fries
into oil. When the pasta is just shy of al dente—on a visit a few weeks
ago, I watched as a chef tasted a snip of spaghetti for doneness,
staring dramatically into the distance as she chewed—it goes into the
pan to finish. The vibe is slightly clubby, in a European kind of way,
with shiny concrete floors and leather accents and house music thumping
over the speakers, but the air is heady with the scent of starchy water
and sharp cheese, and it’s mesmerizing to watch the chefs slice long
tubes of fresh paccheri into segments as they slowly slide out of an
industrial pasta maker. The results—that paccheri, for example, in a
tart tomato sauce thick with shreds of gamy wild boar—are, if not quite
spectacular, worthy of the spectacle.

Most ambitious, if also most humble, is Pasta Flyer, not far from
Raviolo in the West Village, where the goal is not spectacle but
efficiency. It’s the brainchild of Mark Ladner, who made his reputation
as one of the best chefs in the city at the upscale Batali & Bastianich
restaurant Del Posto, concocting luxurious pastas like ring-shaped
cannellini stuffed with creamy robiola cheese in black-truffle sauce and earning a four-star review in the Times. Last year, he left that restaurant and set out to bring pasta to the people, in a distinctly
fast-food setting. This is not “fast casual,” as certain hip but
laid-back counter-service spots have been dubbed; it’s not Del Posto to-go. Ladner hopes, instead, to make Pasta Flyer into something
like an Italian Chipotle, with branches all over the country serving
affordable pasta made with high-quality ingredients. As such, the menu
features just a few familiar preparations, all for under nine dollars,
including fettuccine Alfredo and spaghetti with meatballs, plus a small
selection of salads and sides.

To his great credit, Ladner has totally nailed the speed, with a secret
system that allows staff to cook and sauce noodles in a jaw-dropping
fifteen seconds. (I watched carefully on multiple occasions and still
couldn’t quite figure it out.) The space is boxy and brightly lit, with
Italianate décor that falls just on the right side of cheesy (painted
farmhouse chairs, a planter full of dried wheat stalks). When it comes
to the food itself, though, I wonder if Ladner, who is not the only chef devoting himself to grab-and-go pasta, is overestimating its appeal. People eat at fast-food restaurants not
only because they’re quick and inexpensive but also because it takes a
lot of time, ingredients, and equipment to make, say, a burrito, or
proper French fries, or even a chopped salad, at home. People order
pasta in restaurants in the hopes that it will be significantly better
than what they can make at home with a pound of Ronzoni and a jar of
sauce. At Pasta Flyer, the fettuccine Alfredo and fusilli with pesto
might be healthier than heavily processed supermarket products, but they
aren’t substantially more exciting. And pasta doesn’t carry particularly
well, even when it’s designed to: Ladner’s “fried lasagna snack”
(“wrapped for eating on the go”) sounds fantastic until you find yourself
walking around the Container Store with oily fingers, trying desperately
to hold on to a tiny cup of spicy marinara sauce.

I saw a glimmer of promise, though, in the whole-wheat rigatoni with
“Nonna’s meat ragù.” The rigatoni, which was perfectly al dente, looked
and tasted indistinguishable from the best of the white-wheat stuff, and
the finely textured meat sauce was rich and layered, peppery and sweet,
with a measured hit of fennel seed. It was as good as any I’ve had in a
white-tablecloth trattoria, and I’ve been craving it ever since. If all
of Ladner’s pastas tasted so clearly like the work of a chef—or, better
yet, a grandmother—he might really be on to something.


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