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Oodles of Noodles

With a growing variety of flavor profiles,
noodles dishes are hot. By Megan Rowe

Oodles of

With so many dieters packing in the protein, you might expect restaurant sales of carbo-laden noodle dishes to be slipping.

You’d be as wrong as a plate of gluey, overcooked spaghetti.

"People are still eating carbohydrates," says Gabriel Viti, chef/owner of Gabriel’s, an upscale Italian establishment in Highwood, Ill. "We’ve seen no decline (in pasta sales), and I’m a big exercise and diet freak, so I’m pretty aware of what people are eating." Joseph
Micatrotto, chairman, president and c.e.o. of Buca Inc. in Minneapolis, agrees. Protein fans represent a small slice of the dining public, he says, and "the carbo people more than make up for the Atkins people." Pasta sales represent about 60 percent of the
total at his company’s 85 Buca di Beppo locations and about half of the total at Vinny T’s, a smaller chain the company runs in the northeast.

Nobody, it seems, doesn’t like noodles. "They’re the most universal food in the world," explains Aaron Kennedy, chairman and co-c.e.o. of Boulder, Colo.-based Noodles & Company. "They’re a staple in dining and have been for as long as anybody has been alive."

Pasta, a major player in many western and eastern cuisines, is also a model of versatility. "Whether it’s noodles or other pasta shapes, there are endless ways of doing them—I can’t think of anything with that many shapes and sizes—and whatever you put on them, that’s what it is," Micatrotto says. "I would call it the ultimate foundation for food."

One chef theorizes that people may be treating themselves with pasta the way they once cheated on diets with a big steak. Ironically, a little secret about noodles that eludes many dieters, says Joyce Goldstein, former chef/owner of San Francisco’s Square One restaurant and author of multiple cookbooks, is that "it’s one of the smartest ways to eat. A little protein can flavor a lot."

For the restaurateur, noodles offer similar broad appeal. They’re economical, versatile, easy to store, universally available and generally simple to prepare. "Pasta is a pretty forgiving item," Micatrotto observes. "The only thing I think you can do wrong—the mortal sin of pasta, for me—is overcooking it."

They also make an operator look good. "We can afford to put a lot of value on the plate with noodles," says Gary Leff, c.e.o. of Stir Crazy Enterprises, which runs seven full-service casual pan-Asian restaurants in the Chicago market.

The long-term appeal of noodles hasn’t escaped the notice of the major players, either. McDonald’s recently signed a joint venture deal to develop 20 to 30 Fazoli’s, a 400-unit fast-casual brand based in Lexington, Ky., and Wendy’s is investing in Pasta Pomodoro, a California-based regional chain. Both feature carbo-centric menus.

Pushing the Taste Envelope
As happens with any cuisine that U.S. chefs have made their own, approaches to noodles seem to fall into two camps. The purists insist on the right noodle for the right sauce, while their more daring counterparts favor the melting pot approach, always seeking the next new taste. Fortunately, American palates have room for both.

Some observers, for example, are aghast at the huge portions many Italian restaurants seem to pride themselves on, arguing that U.S. restaurants have marred pasta’s place on the menu—as one course of many, all served in moderation—and earned it an undeserved reputation as pig-out fare. What pundits don’t always point out, though, is that those huge servings are often meant to be shared, family-style.

At Chicago’s Spiaggio, pasta is usually only one part of a multicourse meal that doesn’t leave the guest ready to explode. Chef/partner Tony Mantuano strives so much for authenticity that he brought three old-fashioned hand-cranked pasta machines back from a trip to Italy and churns out his own bigoli, a tube-shaped pasta made with chestnut flour and served with a porcini mushroom sauce; thin noodles from a chitarra, which are served with lobster and baby zucchini; and corzetti, or pasta coins, paired with crab, wild arugula and pancetta. The three dishes are the most popular on Spiaggia’s menu, in part, says Mantuano, because of their novelty. They give diners "the opportunity to taste something that they don’t taste in other Italian restaurants in America," he says.

Montuano acknowledges that U.S.-based Italian chains are doing a better job with pasta than in the past, but "at the same time there’s a lot more inauthentic stuff," he adds. The bigger problem, he says, is too much advance preparation. "If there’s one thing that everyone could start doing that would make it 100% better, it would be not to precook pasta and hold it. It’s something that’s just not done in Italy, and it would be a sin there."

At the other end of the spectrum are several noodle-heavy chains that have made a point of adapting ethnic influences from across the globe. Noodles & Company’s menu is designed to draw those craving the familiar, with dishes like Wisconsin Mac and Cheese, as well as their more adventurous companions, with Indonesian Peanut Saute. It’s also meant to encourage people to try new things.

But Greg Cresp, president and c.e.o. of California Pasta Co., which offers such concoctions as Chicken Feta Fettuccine and Barbecue Chicken Penne, defends nontraditional approaches to noodles. "(Noodles) originated in Asia; (they’re) not just Italian, and we’ve created a lot of flavors in America that don’t even exist in Italy," he argues.

"We always try to work with authentic recipes first," says Paul Muller, executive chef and director of culinary operations for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang’s, which operates the popular Chinese chain by that name and its more casual pan-Asian offspring, Pei Wei. But sometimes authenticity doesn’t cut it with American palates. Pei Wei’s original pad thai recipe included the traditional fish sauce flavoring, but "we found that the aroma wasn’t familiar to a lot of guests, making them a little nervous," says Muller. Now soy sauce seasons the dish. Noodles & Company removed a miso soup with noodles after tweaking it for three years because no one seemed to appreciate miso’s strong taste. Buca is working on a chingali, a bucatini dish which, if served in Italy, would incorporate wild boar; here, it’s likely that pork will be substituted. And the staff at Spiaggia couldn’t figure out why its clients didn’t warm up to Straccetti con Ragu di Capretto (loosely translated, "rags and braised young goat").

So What Do Customers Like?
Baked pastas: Lasagne, manicotti, ravioli, stuffed shells, ziti. "If you say ‘baked,’ it’s going to sell. People love it," says Micatratto. Fazoli’s executive chef, Valentino Mennitto, agrees.

Lighter sauces: Heavier cream-based sauces aren’t cutting it these days; in their place, chefs are offering tomato- or olive oil-based sauces. Michael Bilger, executive chef at Carneros, a restaurant at the Lodge at Sonoma in California, combines aromatic broths with butter, which produces a cream-type sauce without the heaviness.

Familiar and not-so-familiar tastes: At Noodles & Company, two opposites share top billing: Wisconsin Mac & Cheese, and Japanese Pan Noodles (udon noodles, Indonesian sweet soy sauce with broccoli,

shiitakes, carrots, garlic, pickled ginger, bean sprouts and scallions). Each, Kennedy argues, is its own culture’s version of comfort food.

Samples of old standards: Fazoli’s top seller is a sampler platter with spaghetti and meat sauce, fettucine alfredo and lasagne.

Do-it-yourself creations: About 40 percent of Stir Crazy’s entrée sales involve a create-your-own stir fry with various sauces, proteins, and a choice of three noodles or rice. (Lo mein is the favorite.) Sales in the similarly structured "my creation" category at California Pasta Co. rival those in the more traditional categories.

Bolder flavor profiles: Fazoli’s is experimenting with more garlic and stronger cheeses; a star on P.F. Chang’s menu is Singapore Street Noodles—thin rice noodles with a spicy curry sauce, chicken, shrimp, cabbage, tomatoes, shallots and lime; Kung Pao

Noodles is a top seller at Stir Crazy, and a spicy basil noodle dish is gaining on it.

In any form, noodles are a safe bet. Certainly no one has to worry about mad pasta disease, as one purveyor half-jokingly points out, but perhaps more important, "for a lot of people, pasta is still a comfort food," observes Christine Zambito, executive chef of Sanderling, a resort in Duck, N.C. "And with all the uncertainty going on in the world, that’s important."