The pasta category is a great place to innovate. First, in all its guises, it remains a popular ingredient with today’s consumers. And second, it carries a low food cost, making innovation all the more appealing. Although fettuccine Alfredo might be a safe bet, it doesn’t say signature and it doesn’t say modern. Capitalizing on diners’ inherent comfort level with noodles is a smart way to catapult them into a memorable and contemporary flavor experience. When you deliver that, you make that all-important emotional connection with the guest. Whether you dig deeper into authentic Italian pasta traditions or you push into Asian and Latin noodle discoveries, pasta can offer a magical conduit to craveable dishes.
1. Intriguing Shapes
Switching out spaghetti for bucatini doesn’t change the profile of the dish, but can add premium cues of authenticity and sense of place. Less familiar pasta shapes like ruffled cone-shaped campanelle offer an easy entry point into menu distinction. At Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami Beach, Fla., the macaroni and cheese switches out the familiar elbow noodle for torchio, a spirally torch-shaped pasta. Not only does it help with differentiation and premium positioning, but it also serves the important function of capturing as much of the five-cheeses sauce as possible.
- Radiatore Pasta with crabmeat, roasted tomatoes, basil, wild mushrooms, Parmesan, tomato cream — Moshulu, Philadelphia
- I Garganelli: Garganelli, pork sausage, Parmesan, fennel seeds — Drago Centro, Los Angeles
Going gluten free has become a lifestyle choice—not just a directive for those suffering from celiac disease. In the noodle world, the selection is growing, varying from gluten-free pasta made with rice and corn but mimicking the texture and flavor of traditional pasta to alternative doughs made with chestnut, quinoa and black bean “flour.”
- Soba Noodle Bowl with Edamame: Buckwheat noodles, fresh spinach, napa cabbage blend, roasted mushroom and onion blend, fire-roasted edamame blend, sesame seeds and cilantro in umami soy-miso broth — Panera, multiple locations
- Chicken Parmesan: Almond oregano-crusted all-natural chicken over brown rice pasta and zesty tomato sauce — My Fit Foods, multiple locations
3. Ooey Gooey Cheese
Cheese is always a welcome addition to pasta, but it seems that diners yet again are looking for authenticity cues—even within the melty layer of cheese that blankets favorite pasta dishes. It’s as simple as calling out the artisanship behind the cheese or highlighting unique or specialty cues like fresh mozzarella or smoky blue cheese.
- Baked Ravioli Parmesan: Panko-breaded ravioli filled with five Italian cheeses, lightly fried then baked and topped with pomodoro sauce, Romano and mozzarella cheese — Carrabba’s Italian Grill, multiple locations
- World’s Best Mac & Cheese: Penne pasta with Beecher’s pure, artisan and award-winning Flagship cheese — Beecher’s Handmade Cheese Café, Seattle
The darling of the noodle world, ramen is having a moment. Rocketed into the limelight by David Chang’s Momofuku, diners have discovered this Japanese noodle soup dish that boasts insanely delicious meat- or fish-based broths—salty, warm and aromatic. Technomic’s MenuMonitor clocks ramen as the fastest growing noodle over the last two years.
- Totto Chicken Paitan Ramen: Homemade noodles, chicken and soy-based broth, scallion, onion, char siu pork, nori — Totto Ramen, New York
- Sumo Bowl: Chashu pork, smoked brisket, spicy crushed egg — Ramen-San, Chicago
Spaetzle is Germany’s version of cavatelli, made with flour, eggs and water. When made well, these tiny pillows are ethereal, offering good counterbalance to rich gravies and sauces. Diners are already embracing the best of modern German cuisine—the brats, pretzels and beers. Spaetzle is the next flavor frontier, both as a side and appetizer.
- Spaetzel Mac & Cheese, portobello mushrooms, smoked bacon and aged Swiss Mornay — Mader’s, Milwaukee
- Roasted Duck crusted with lavender and served with sweet potato spaetzle — The River Café, Brooklyn
At Piccolo Sogno Due in Chicago, Tony Priolo uses paccheri in this dish, which features shrimp, zucchini, grape tomatoes, brandy and shellfish broth.
6. Updated Pasta Salads
Remember the pasta salads of the ’90s, bound with mayonnaise and studded with salad toppings? Well, pasta salads are back—just in time for summer menus. Maybe it’s part of a backlash against the low-carb craze or maybe we’ve collectively remembered how a well-crafted pasta salad can satisfy. The trends of customization and one-bowl compositions are helping its resurgence, as well as a bump in creative flavor combinations that make them craveable once again.
- Olive Mill Signature Pasta Salad with Community Grains fusilli, seasonal Capay veggies, creamy Italian vinaigrette, crumbled chèvre goat cheese — Séka Hills Tasting Room, Brooks, Calif.
- Chicken Florentine: Roasted chicken, zesty spinach and orzo salad, lemon vinaigrette — Romano’s Macaroni Grill, multiple locations
- Tamarind-Glazed Lamb Lollipops with Glass Noodle Salad — Blue Dragon, Boston
7. Fresh Pastas
With diners responding to artisanal touches on the menu, featuring fresh pastas works for a number of operators. Handmade pastas can be challenging, but they convey a commitment to authenticity and craftsmanship.
- Cavatappi with cauliflower, Castelvetrano olives, cured Meyer lemon and breadcrumbs — Il Corvo, Seattle
- Handmade Pappardelle with slow-braised duck ragu — Osteria Via Stato, Chicago
8. Build-Your-Own Bowl
Italian fast-casual concepts are perhaps leading the charge in customizable pasta bowls, where diners can choose the noodle, sauce and add-ins. Next to the salad and burrito bowl, the build-your-own pasta bowl is a natural fit for today’s foodservice landscape. And on the Asian side of things, customizable ramen and broth bowls are definitely gaining traction.
- Choice of spaghetti, whole-wheat penne or lasagna bianca with sauce choices like pomodoro or fonduta; add-ins like grilled Tuscan lemon chicken or Italian meatballs, as well as toppings like crispy capers and roasted mushrooms — Venti Tre Modern Italian, multiple locations
- Choice of fusilli, rigatoni, spaghetti, fettuccine with sauce choices like pork neck bone Bolognese and puttanesca; add-ins like asparagus, shrimp and Italian sausage — Arabella Case di Pasta, New Orleans
9. Protein with Pasta
With center of the plate changing proportions, and meal occasions continuing their accordion-like stretching across the clockless day, pasta offers a great way to present protein while keeping menu cost and calorie count in check. Whether it’s a ladle of hearty braised short rib over pappardelle or slow-and-low lamb shanks stuffed into a single bar-snack cannelloni, pasta and protein bring satisfaction while keeping the profile modern and flavor forward.
- Pappardelle with Lamb Ragu, sheep’s milk ricotta and mint — The Dutch, Miami Beach, Fla.
- Sirloin Steak & Gorgonzola Campanelle with mushrooms, asparagus, garlic, balsamic onions, fresh herbs, cracked pepper, Gorgonzola cream sauce — Minerva’s Restaurant & Bar, Rapid City, S.D.
Pasta serves as a natural platform for delivering protein to the table. Here, braised short rib ragu combines with strozzapreti pasta, topped with a shaving of Parmesan.
These thin strands of pasta are Latin America’s answer to ramen. Often toasted first then added to rich broths, fideos add body and flavor to soups. In Spain, fideos a la cazuela is a rustic noodle casserole, while fideuà is a paella-style dish that replaces bomba rice with fideos. In Los Angeles, chef Ricardo Diaz has opened a weekend-only Mexican fideo soup pop-up called Colonia Publica. It features customizable bowls with ingredients like chicharrón, queso fresco and roasted corn.
- Quail Tetrazzini, mushrooms, fideos and crème fraîche — Cockscomb, San Francisco
- Squid Ink Fideo, Dungeness crab, boar sausage, preserved lemon — Toro Bravo, Portland, Ore.
11. Stuffed Pastas
Almost every region in Italy has its variation on the stuffed pasta: Ravioli hails from Liguria, agnolotti belongs to Piedmont and tortellini is Emilian. One variation that’s found its way onto bar bite menus here is a raviolo, a single, large pasta pocket filled with anything from braised oxtail to a perfectly poached egg.
- Tortellaci alla Romagna: Noodles stuffed with braised short ribs, finished with a rich Sunday gravy — Jasper’s Restaurant, Kansas City, Mo.
- Ricotta & Spinach Raviolini — Carbone’s, Dallas
12. Roman Pastas
Mining a regional cuisine is a great way to showcase authenticity. Roman-style pasta dishes are primed for further translation. Amatriciana, that beautiful dish starring pecorino Romano, guanciale, tomatoes, wine and dried chile peppers, shows a 23.8 percent increase on menu mentions over the last two years, according to Technomic. Indeed, guanciale and pecorino are the two darlings of Roman pasta dishes, starring in carbonara, amatriciana and the peppery cacio e pepe. Chef David Chang has even created a nontraditional version of this dish, subbing instant ramen for the Italian pasta.
- Carbonara spaghetti with pancetta, organic egg, Parmesan — Sant Ambroeus, New York
- Bucatini all’Amatriciana, guanciale, tomato, pepperoncini, pecorino — Locanda, San Francisco
- Chicken Carbonara: All-natural chicken, applewood smoked bacon, spring peas and linguine in a creamy carbonara sauce, topped with toasted breadcrumbs — Corner Bakery Cafe, multiple locations