Say what you want about the popularity of gluten-free foods, but wheat-packed, chewy pasta remains one of the fastest-growing items on restaurant menus.
According to research firm Mintel, the number of pasta dishes on menus has risen by 14 percent over the past three years.
Mintel said menu descriptors highlighting restaurants’ expertise in pasta were increasing in popularity. It said the terms “fresh” and “homemade” remained widespread, and the use of the terms “signature” and “housemade” was growing quickly.
“Consumers want to know what they are buying is something they can’t replicate,” the report noted.
Some particularly indulgent pasta dishes such as Alfredo and lasagna have declined in popularity over the past three years, but mentions of another high-fat and high-calorie dish — macaroni and cheese — have jumped by more than 70 percent since the first quarter of 2009, making it the most frequently listed pasta dish, followed by longtime favorite ravioli.
Given those developments and a growing consumer interest in eating more healthfully, Mintel identified three major trends in pasta: authenticity, refined comfort food and small steps toward better health.
Authenticity is in play at Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, where new chef Clayton Miller offers a dish of scorched wheat fettuccine with fava beans and leaves, lemon, and poppy seeds for $9.
Scorching wheat is a practice from Puglia, the heel of the great Italian boot, where wheat fields were torched after harvest to remove the dried excess vegetation. What burnt seeds remained behind were collected by peasants who used them to prepare focaccia and pasta.
“At Wit & Wisdom, we bake the flour until golden brown and then use that flour to make our pasta dough,” Miller said. “It adds a great earthiness to the pasta.”
The flavor profile of lemon, poppy seeds and fava beans is also traditional in Italy and perfect for the end of spring/beginning of summer here in Maryland,” he added.
Brent Banda, executive chef of La Tavola Trattoria in Atlanta, looks to Italy’s toe, the region of Calabria, for his black linguine.
For that dish the pasta is colored with squid ink, a common practice in southern Italy.
“It gives it that really nice black color and kind of a salinity to the pasta,” he said.
To cook the dish he starts by sautéing anchovies, capers and Calabrian chiles, which are small, lightly pickled chiles packed in olive oil. He adds squid that he has marinated with chile, parsley and garlic and cooks it all in white wine and olive oil.
Banda boils the pasta in heavily salted water for two to three minutes and then adds that pasta, along with some of the pasta water, to the calamari, cooking it together for about 30 seconds.
“It’s not a separate sauce and a pasta; it’s one thing,” he explained.
Banda finishes the dish with a pesto made of Thai basil, sweet basil and parsley from his patio herb garden, together with garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice and olive oil — but no nuts. It sells for $18.
Egidio Donagrandi, chef-owner of Paprika, a 12-year-old restaurant in New York, prepares dishes from Valtellina, a valley in the Italian region of Lombardy near the Swiss border, where he grew up. Valtellina is where a lot of buckwheat is grown, so that’s what’s used in the pasta.
Donagrandi added the first buckwheat pasta to his menu nearly seven years ago.
“Eventually, [the dishes] became very popular, and people love them,” he said.
Donagrandi mixes buckwheat flour with a little wheat flour for added gluten and cuts it into wide noodles.
His pizzoccheri valtellinesi is a peasant dish of noodles almost as wide as pappardelle. He starts with sliced potatoes in a pot of water, then he adds cabbage and cooks it for a few minutes.
“You want there still to be some crunch in the cabbage,” he said.
Next, the pasta is added, and once cooked it is strained and put in a baking pan. He layers it with Casera cheese from the area, along with some Parmesan, butter and sage, and then bakes it just enough to melt the cheese. The dish is priced at $16.
Donagrandi also offers a buckwheat lasagna, which he describes as “a mountain kind of dish” — noting that it’s heavier than the pizzoccheri.
To prepare it, he layers cooked sheets of pasta with braised leeks and a béchamel-based cheese sauce mixed with Casera, which he said has an “earthy, almost soil-like taste, kind of like aged Fontina.” The dish sells for $17.
Buckwheat’s not just authentic to Valtellina. It’s also high in fiber and protein and reportedly effective at lowering cholesterol, giving it the added bonus of having the reputation of being healthful while also being tasty.
That’s the stock-in-trade of Snap Kitchen, which has locations in the Texas cities of Austin and Houston and offers a popular spaghetti made with brown rice that is tossed in turkey Bolognese sauce with sautéed mushrooms, basil and Parmesan cheese. A medium, 360-calorie portion is $7.25.
Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza, an 18-unit chain based in San Diego, also recently added a gluten-free brown rice-based Bolognese to its menu, although the dish is made with penne instead of spaghetti. It sells for $15.
“It’s doing well,” corporate chef Jeff Moogk said, noting that it appeals to customers who are avoiding gluten.
He said that Sammy’s, which also offers gluten-free pizza, has a reputation for catering to the needs of the gluten-free community, and the chain attracts many people with those dietary restrictions. Between 7 percent and 10 percent of his customers request gluten-free items, he said.
“Obviously, if people want another pasta, we can change it out with a linguine or a fettuccine,” he said. “But I think people are more likely to order the brown-rice penne than linguine or fettuccine.”
Michelle Bernstein, chef-owner of Sra. Martinez in Miami, offers her own version of a Cuban comfort food dish called rabo encendido. Traditionally served with rice, Bernstein prepares hers with house-made pasta, both to add a personal touch and to make a more luxurious-looking plate. It is priced at $17.
“We pull the meat off the bone, reduce its braising liquid and make a delicious sauce,” she said. “Then we toss the meat back into the pasta. It is thick enough to really stick to the pasta and become a rich, upscale dish.”