Quality is Key

Pasta is perhaps the ultimate comfort food and one of the most adaptable staples in a restaurant’s pantry. With its low cost – and with the right combination of ingredients, it can also be a profit powerhouse.

For Chef Massimo Balacchi, Sysco’s Italian Segment Director, starting with quality pasta is the key. He argues that premium products made with higher-grade wheat are worth the extra expense – which often amounts to just pennies per serving.

“Having a higher protein content changes the overall experience, palatability and mouthfeel of the dish,” says Balacchi. “It’s much more enjoyable, doesn’t get mushy, and doesn’t fall flat on the plate.”
Visual Appeal

After quality, presentation can spell the difference between a ho-hum pasta dish and one with higher perceived value. Pasta shapes that create more elevation and plate coverage have more visual appeal. “One of the cuts that has really caught on in many places is cavatappi (a corkscrew-shaped macaroni),” says Balacchi. “Even just four ounces of that makes a plate look full.”

Serving pasta on smaller-scale plates and in bowls is another way to enhance perceptions of portion size and value. Operators often serve pasta on entrée plates, which leave too big a canvas. ”If you have a plate that looks half empty, chances are you are not going to feel as full or satisfied versus if you have a plate that’s slightly smaller but looks full,” Balacchi notes.
A Little Goes a Long Way

When it comes to pasta preparations, expert technique can trump pricey add-ons.

The common practice of combining pasta with expensive proteins, such as fillet or lobster, inflates the overall food cost, often without an equivalent effect on taste – or return on investment. “Ultimately what’s important is the overall flavor of the dish, the sauce and how it interacts with the shape of the pasta,” Balacchi says.

Premium proteins can still play a role in pasta dishes, but a little goes a long way. Opting for less-costly cuts of meat, poultry, and seafood, as well as using plant-based proteins and vegetables, can bring down the plate cost without sacrificing taste.

To appeal to health-seeking diners or vegetarians, chefs are preparing pasta with a wider variety of herbs and vegetables, extending well beyond the traditional garlic, olives, onions, tomatoes and basil. Ingredients such as fennel, tubers, kale, spinach and roasted cauliflower are also trending up.

Traditional wheat-based pastas are increasingly being pushed aside in favor of alternative products that appeal to guests who want to avoid simple carbohydrates or gluten. Pastas made with chickpeas, whole wheat, spelt, lentils, beans, corn and rice have become more readily available (and better tasting) in recent years. A chickpea-based pasta from Banza is especially popular – and available through Sysco. “Ask any pasta manufacturer what’s on trend now, and they will say pulse pastas,” Balacchi says.
Endless Possibilities

Chefs like pasta because it’s readily available, provides a neutral base for other flavors, and challenges their creativity. Pasta specials can be built around whatever is seasonal or on hand. A raid on the pantry or a visit to the seasonal market can both inspire a terrific pasta dish.

“Ultimately, even if you use ingredients that cost a little less, if the culinary preparation is masterful, you can still come up with amazing dishes,” Balacchi says. “Prepare something that people will come back for. People tend to come back and order the same thing if they find a dish they like.”

Find these recipes at SyscoFoodie.com.