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Pasta Aplenty

13 December 2005

For diners seeking flavor and substance, partnerships of pasta and protein deliver on the dream.

This article first appeared in the 1 September 2005 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Pasta has returned with a flourish after enduring the fleeting though fierce low-carb fad. For its big comeback, it is settling onto menus, not just in Italian eateries but across multiple cuisines. Chefs, always aiming to deliver honest simplicity on the plate, are breathing new life into the sturdy staple with enticing sauces that marry pasta with all manner of proteins.

The familiar options of meat sauce, chicken and shrimp now are joined by the likes of barbecued pork, wild boar, lamb and short ribs for pairings that span foodservice segments. R&I goes in depth with 10 chefs who turn to different proteins for flavorful dimensions in pastas from ravioli to rigatoni, perciatelli to pansotti.

Wild Boar and Pappardelle

In an innovative spin, Falai incorporates peas into the pasta dough. To control moisture, he dehydrates and grinds them, then adds the resulting powder to flour along with a paste made from the cooked peas. "The flavor doesn't come through so much … but the pasta is interesting because the peas give it a nice, grainy texture," Falai says. They also endow it with a delicate green tint.

Short Ribs and Ravioli

At upscale New American-style Butter in Chicago, Executive Chef Ryan Poli's penchant for meat-and-fish pairings inspires a high-impact accompaniment for halibut: short-rib ravioli. For the filling, Poli braises the ribs in red wine and cools them in the liquid before removing and shredding the meat. Herbs, shallots, salt and pepper are added to the braising liquid; it then is reduced to a demi-glace.

The meat is folded into the reduction; 1-ounce portions are used to fill each pasta pocket. "Halibut and beef complement each other because the fish is delicate but can hold up to the bold flavor of the ravioli," says Poli, who completes the composition with spring onions, trumpet royale mushrooms, asparagus and tarragon sabayon.

Pork Belly and Perciatelli

Executive Chef Joey Campanaro trades traditional guanciale for smoked pork belly in his update of bucatini all' Amatriciana at Pace, a rustic Italian restaurant in New York City. "People want a hearty meal," he says of the pasta-protein pairing. "They want something that stands up to the wine."

The sauce, with pleasantly deep smoky notes, is spooned over thick, hollow strands of perciatelli. Both pasta and sauce carry heft that holds up to sharp, salty pecorino cheese the chef shaves on top. In the Italian tradition of using as much of the pig as possible, pork belly skin is recruited to make tomato sauce, which draws heat from chile paste sourced from Italy. Once the pork belly is diced and rendered, he cooks it to tenderness in the sauce.

Barbecued Pork and Soba Noodles

Not often found on Italian menus, barbecued pork is a popular option for entrées at noodlin', a two-unit startup based in Vancouver, Wash. Among "world noodles" on the fast-casual menu, diners most often match the pork with thin, buckwheat- and wheat flour-based soba noodles, an Asian staple with shape and texture that serve both products well.

The dish, Yaki Soba Noodles, includes green cabbage, bell peppers, broccoli and water chestnuts sautéed in ginger-soy sauce. Rubbed in barbecue seasoning and cooked in a combi oven, the pork takes especially well to the sauce, which forms a savory crust amid the pan's heat, says John Kerr, director of concept development for parent company The Holland Inc.

Lobster and Agnolotti

In Columbus, Ohio, house-made pasta goes a long way to separate the multicultural, upscale-casual menu at Braddock's Grandview from local competitors. Form house-made pasta into crescent-shaped agnolotti filled with sweet lobster meat, and the level of distinction rises even more.

"Here, agnolotti is something different, so it gives us bragging rights," says Robert Martin, executive chef and general manager. Large pieces of lobster meat are enriched with duck fat and lightly bound with bread, butter and herbs. Tucking the seafood mixture inside the pillowy pasta rather than dispersing pieces among rods or tubes concentrates flavor in every bite, making sure it is not lost amid its sauce, a spicy clam-and-mussel mix sparked by habanero-chile oil.

Smoked Chicken and Ravioli

"People are always searching for newer things under the traditional umbrella," says Adam Baird, corporate executive chef for Mimi's Café, a 93-unit chain based in Tustin, Calif. For him, that includes novel pasta shapes and fillings. Among his recent menu additions is Smoked Chicken Two Cheese Ravioli, an intensely flavored dish that packages the concept's most popular protein into a pasta previously not on the menu.

Made fresh to Mimi's specifications by a vendor, the ravioli is stuffed with lightly smoked chicken, herbs and a Parmesan-mozzarella blend. At the restaurants, kitchen staff top the pasta with sun-dried tomato cream sauce, a blend of the chain's sun-dried tomato pesto and Asiago cream sauce.

Tofu and Shaped Pasta

Pasta's inherent comfort-food status keeps customers lined up for the weekly pasta bar at All Seasons Services' 70 business-and-industry accounts. Part of a rotating protein lineup that also includes shrimp, chicken, beef, sausage and meatballs, tofu is especially popular among vegetarian and ethnic clientele, says Susan Goldberg, director of marketing and support services for the Canton, Mass.-based contractor.

Cut into cubes, the tofu is precooked, held on the line and then sautéed to order with sauces such as Alfredo, marinara or pesto. Rather than use rod-shaped pastas such as spaghetti and fettucine that can be difficult to eat, chefs serve varieties such as shells and bow ties, which also are better matches to proteins and vegetables.

Shrimp and Rigatoni/Sausage and Linguini

On the contemporary, Southern Italian menu at 270-seat 'Cesca in Atlantic City, N.J., Executive Chef Mark Vardian strives for the perfect balance of protein-to-pasta proportions in dishes such as rigatoni with shrimp, arugula pesto and roasted tomato, and house-made chestnut linguini with fava beans, fennel sausage and pecorino Toscana.

In the former dish, simply sautéed, jumbo shrimp hold their own against large rigatoni noodles-ridged to hold the bright green sauce-in a 50-50 ratio. In the latter, Vardian cuts the protein portion to about 30% so the earthy, sweet pasta is not overpowered by the savory sausage.

Lamb and Tagliatelle

A portion of protein makes pasta even more appealing to lunchtime diners at Mediterranean-themed Skyline Bar & Grill in Houston, says Chef Dominick Mancino. Eschewing the more typical ground beef, he simmers lamb shoulder with veal stock, red wine, herbs and a touch of cream to create a distinctive Bolognese.

English peas and sautéed shiitake mushrooms complement the sauce amid a tangle of tagliatelle. The fettucine-like pasta holds the hearty ragÁ¹ better than alternatives such as penne, says the chef, who generally prefers fresh to dried pasta but currently uses dried for ease and consistency.

Ham and Ravioli

Nothing says country cooking like ham, making its appearance a no-brainer on the New Southern menu at Limestone Restaurant in Louisville, Ky. Chef-partner Jim Gerhardt says the artisanal variety he sources, aged to sweet, salty, smoky perfection, somewhat resembles prosciutto. That Italian connection led him to enclose it in ravioli for an appetizer that ranks among his most popular dishes.

To make the filling, Gerhardt grinds the ham with meaty portobello mushrooms, smoked Gouda, herbs, salt and pepper. Mild, roasted-yellow-tomato sauce and tomato oil balance the flavor-intense pasta. A garnish of frisée and a splash of rice-wine vinegar complete the plating.

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