Under Promise and Over Deliver on Pasta
Creating fantastic pasta is a culinary art. Perfection or getting close to perfection takes years, if not decades. However, making a solid plate of pasta is something that even the most inexperienced of chefs can pull off. When it comes to your pizzeria restaurant, creating a pasta dish that stands out, under-promises, and over-delivers, is easier than you might think. The approach will depend on whether or not you’re going for a chef-driven, single-minded restaurant or if you’re looking to have pasta dishes that intermediate-level back of house employees can execute accurately and consistently.
The key is to under-promise and over-deliver. By being a pizzeria, you’re not expected to be great at pasta. If you can make something a little bit special, it will exceed expectations. The casual customer doesn’t typically expect you to be great at both pizza and also pasta. However, with a bit of thought and preparation, you can beat the high-end Italian restaurant in your town quite easily, even at your pizzeria.
The first way to make the dish feel special is in the presentation. Namely, a decent work surface, i.e., plating. If you love what you sell right now, but it’s not landing with the customer, a solid plate with a nice fork and knife might be all it takes to make the meal feel special. A plastic plate will never provide a feeling of “special.”. Good plating will only serve to enhance your ambiance. Nothing too crazy. A solid white 10-inch plate or bowl is all it takes. This alone will help garner a higher price point your customers will be on board with.
Semolina flour is an essential mandate and prime ingredient for proper pasta. If you’re buying dry pasta, go with the purest pasta you can find that respects the craft of artisan pasta making. Taste test every brand you can source to root your decision in facts and not labels. Then go for shapes you haven’t seen used before. Spaghetti and fettuccini are standard and, in some markets, expected, but if you want to stand out, choose something off-kilter, especially if it’s something you love and can speak passionately about to sell it better.
For high-speed pizzerias, pre-cook and bag your pasta to take half the time from your ticket time. Avoid cooking too far, as the pasta will continue to cook once you turn the heat off. I find ice baths for hot pasta at about half the proposed cook time works best. Then once in the bag and after a few hours, it will only take about a minute dropped in boiling water to be ready for sauce. Always test to make sure it’s still al dente. Pre-portioning pasta can go awry because pasta isn’t intended to keep for days on end once cooked in a bag; if it’s older than a day and smells sour, toss it and adjust your prep pars.
If you have the means to create your own fresh pasta, it is significantly different, more unique, and overall better. I love fresh pasta. Anyone with a soul loves fresh pasta. And how cool would it be for your pizzeria to be seen selling fresh pasta dishes?
To accomplish this, you’ll need, at a minimum, a pasta sheeter and potentially a pasta extruder. A sheeter does just what it says it does, helps sheet out the pasta to make what you’ll need for lasagna, fettuccine, linguini. You can use a sheeter or a pizzeria rolling pin to create one of the easiest and most popular pasta dishes, pappardelle. Pappardelle pasta with a great alfredo sauce will rival the likes of any fine dining Italian restaurant in your town, and it’s one of the easiest dishes you could ever make.
A pasta extruder can be expensive. Also, they aren’t set and forget it machines. It will take some time to get familiar with. You will want to know as much about your machines as possible to maximize the device.
Also, knowing how to use the dies properly isn’t something you’re going to want to trust to just any employee. However, if you take the time to learn these basic items, it can be a game-changer for your brand. It will set you apart, especially if you buy some interesting dies and make some unique shapes. If you go to incredible lengths for your pasta dishes, then it’s a bad idea to overload your menu with pasta items. You don’t need to have 45, 30, or even 15 different pasta dishes. Just because you can make it, it doesn’t mean you should make it. Coming up with three to five standout and solid, memorable dishes will be more than enough for diners to sing your praises.
There is no shortage of great tomato companies at Pizza Expo to see and taste test yourself. Great marinara is as good as the ingredients you choose. For Alfredo, you could buy a pre-packaged Alfredo powder, but that’s not something you, a person savvy enough to read this far into an article about pasta, is about to do. You don’t have a halfway approach to your pizza dough so let’s not have a weak approach to pasta either. I say this because it’s too simple to do any other way than to make a proper alfredo from scratch. Heavy cream, garlic, butter, some Romano, and you’re there. Feel free to substitute olive oil or use both. You can buy the cloves for the fresh garlic and chop it yourself, either with a knife or a food processor. It’s just not hard enough or worth enough reward to buy pre-made garlic.
Stuffed & Layered Pasta
Buying frozen pasta is an easy alternative for most pizzerias. It takes forever to go bad, and you just need to boil it long enough not to screw it up. If you feel the need to sell ravioli but don’t have the time or culinary acumen in your kitchen to pull off fresh, frozen is your alternative. The problem with frozen is anyone can copy you. If you can buy it, your competition can buy it as well. The only thing you have to differentiate at that point is the sauce and presentation.
If you do choose to make fresh ravioli, my hat is off to you. It tastes incredible, is inherently unique, and special when a little effort is applied. It’s not easy. You’ll need to make it in small batches because it does go bad rather quickly. If the staff member making the pasta is inexperienced, it will be high in labor cost with a big potential for product loss in failed attempts. With that said, if you can accomplish it and push it out properly on social media to create a call to action, even if it’s just a special for one night, you can make a substantial impression to your audience that your pizzeria high end.
When it comes to how to make fresh pasta and deciding what pasta is right for your restaurant, whether it’s traditional ravioli, multicolor, or any variation of the filling, do what you love. If you love mushrooms, do that. If you live for brown butter lobster ravioli, make that. If you are extruding, make the shapes you love. If Italian wedding soup done right with fresh ditalini is your thing, make that. If you don’t like anything other than a basic cheese ravioli, then, by all means, start simple and have fun with it. Do something that you will be proud of because you’re going to because it will be a signature dish representing YOU. If you’re willing to go through the work of making fresh pasta, DO WHAT YOU LIKE, NOT WHAT YOU THINK YOUR CUSTOMER EXPECTS. Expectation = cliched.
Another straightforward option is the pasta primavera. Choose flavorful, healthy vegetables that will attract vegans and non-vegan pasta lovers. Artichokes, plum tomatoes, squash and other seasonal vegetables you actually enjoy, can make for a high mover item. Sautee it with a no-cheese marinara, and you will have a vegan hit. Go heavy on the garlic and olive oil with proper seasoning, and you’ll have non-vegans ordering this as well.
If selling to vegans isn’t for you, I’d advise you to realize they are the fastest-growing food demo today, and they have friends and family. If a group is deciding where to eat and your restaurant has no vegan options, you are immediately out of the running. Just a few vegan items will ensure you get larger orders when dietary restrictions play a role. If you don’t believe you have a vegan clientele, you are incorrect. You do. They just don’t eat at your place because you haven’t given them options. So, start with this pasta.
The best pizzeria home run for a simple entree is baked pasta. Use your pizza oven for more than pizza and stay in your wheelhouse. A small six-inch baker bowl or foil to-go bowl with a tube or shell pasta is what you’ll need. Blend this with a marinara or a cream sauce or a mix of the two, add cheese on top, bake it like a pizza, and you are set.
Meatless baked pasta is a universal crowd favorite because it appears hearty but not overly heavy. Plus food cost is great on this item. A baked pasta done this way is ideal for catering. Now, the big boys of pizza caught on and started doing this themselves in their own baked trays a few years back. But here’s one thing that they did not do; fresh julienned or chopped basil on top. The larger chains don’t want a lot of knife work in their kitchen, but that doesn’t throw you off, now, does it? When you put fresh basil on top of a pasta that it complements, i.e., not an alfredo, it instantly shows the customer that this was made in-house and is not a cookie-cutter factory-made meal. It’s incredibly simple, but it’s true. Fresh basil, real basil, is a simple statement that resonates. Dried herbs do not. You can, by all means, use them in whatever sauce mixture you have, but the key is showing off something that could not have come in frozen. Fresh herbs will always convey that.
Whatever pasta you choose, go for flavor first, a flavor you love, with a story you’ll want to convey. Then amp up the look and presentation, and you’ll attract a customer not seeking a discount but instead a return visit.
Mike Bausch is the owner of Andolini’s Pizzeria in Tulsa, Oklahoma.