Friday, June 4, 2010

A new trend to noodle over

Several weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that two pasta chains were opening their first U.S. restaurants a few blocks from one another in New York City. With all due respect to that august chronicler of business developments, it completely missed the story.

Subtly, with an opening here, an announcement there, a key appointment two cities over, a new restaurant trend is emerging, clad in crisp chef’s whites. It’s actually an echo of what happened with burgers and tacos. When both those products where turned into commodities by the fast-food chains, famous chefs started re-inventing them to great success, using high-quality ingredients and the marquee value of their names. Now we have Marcus Samuelson peddling burgers and celebs like Rick Bayless and Paul Kahan moving more street tacos than whole counties might in Mexico.

All signs say the same thing is beginning with low-end Italian fare, specifically pasta and pizza. We’re seeing the first red tide of places offering fare of the same quality you’d get in a higher-end restaurant, but at prices closer to what the public would pay at a fast-food outlet. It’s affordable high quality, a la Chipotle, Pei Wei and Five Guys.

The development promises to be a powerful riptide in the fast-casual wave.

As the Journal article reported, New York will soon sport outlets of Hello Pasta, an upstart concept started by two Europeans and an American. Prices will range from $6.95 to $12, the story noted.

Its challenger will be the first American outpost of Nooi, an established French chain that specializes in pasta presumably priced in the same range as Hello Pasta’s.

The story failed to note that another European transplant is also looking to snare new Yorkers with its linguini. Vapiano, the German pasta and salad concept, announced plans some time ago to advance northward from its U.S. beachhead of Washington, D.C.

But the list doesn’t stop there. A friend mentioned that she’d crossed paths out at the National Restaurant Association convention with Howard Gordon, a former longtime executive of The Cheesecake Factory. Gordon mentioned that he’s now working with a pasta concept that’s putting its pot to boil on the West Coast.

Meanwhile, one of the emerging segment’s pioneers is hoping to be rejuvenated by its new owners. Pasta Pomodoro, a now-29-unit chain previously owned by Wendy’s, was purchased at the start of the year by several investors from its home turf of northern California. The full-service concept offers quality pasta at a price consistent with a fast-casual place. It was conceived a consideral time ago by fine-dining chef Adriano Paganini to fill the niche all the other upstarts are now targeting.

Then there’s Pitfire Artisan Pizza, the four-unit pizza-and-pasta chain in southern California. The concept’s executive chef is Michael Ainslie, the former culinary chief for Tesco’s Fresh & Easy gourmet food shops in the southwest. All of its pastas are priced under $10, and its most expensive pizzas, including the Greens, Eggs & Ham, cost $10.25.

The Journal article might’ve missed the bigger picture. But its first line was dead-on: “Let the pasta wars begin.”

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