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Several culinary trends have converged to push pasta and rice out of the sidelines and into the limelight. For one, there’s the explosion of Asian, Latin and Mediterranean cuisines; rice and/or noodles figure prominently in all. Then there are current economic and health forces. For years, smart cooks have stretched small amounts of more expensive meat and seafood with grain-based foods, and similar recessionbusting dishes are showing up in restaurants. Finally, pasta and rice, high in complex carbs and other nutrients, can be a healthy base for a host of tasty vegetarian preps.

Operators looking to add to their pasta and rice inventory have a wide variety of choices. Both categories have specialized and expanded to meet today’s more demanding palates and nutrition needs. Here’s how three concepts are purchasing and menuing these pantry staples, followed by a look at what’s happening in each category.

Pasta news

Purchasing a variety of pasta shapes is still a smart way to go. But pasta buying has gotten a bit more complicated. With the push to include more grains in the diet, several companies are now incorporating whole grain flours into the manufacturing process. Barilla offers multigrain pasta in several shapes, and J.M. Swank introduced five Ultragrain pasta varieties. These products are not the fiber-rich “healthy” pastas of old; they have a ratio of 51 percent whole grain flour to 49 percent semolina for appealing texture and flavor. Gluten-free pastas are also widely available, including filled products like ravioli and tortellini.

Pasta and sauce partners

There are no absolutes when it comes to pairing a particular pasta shape with a sauce or
prep, but some make better partners than others. The culinary team at Barilla offers these
suggestions:

  • Fettuccine: Dairy-based, oil-based or tomato; sauces combined with meat, vegetables or cheese
  • Linguine: Pesto, fish-based sauces
  • Angel hair: Light dairy or tomato sauces; soups
  • Spaghetti: Simple tomato sauce with or without meat or vegetables; carbonara; tuna
  • Elbow macaroni: Macaroni and cheese; pasta salads; chunky meat or fish sauces
  • Tube shapes (penne, rigatoni, ziti, etc.): Chunky meat or vegetable sauces; spicy tomato sauces; mushroom cream sauce
  • Twist shapes (Cavatappi, fusilli, gemelli, rotini): Tomato sauces with or without vegetables or meat; dairy- and oil-based sauces
  • Farfalle (bows): Bold flavored sauces and pasta salads

Rice news

Whole grains are also making news on the rice front. Chefs have been menuing brown rice for quite some time, but recently they have started asking for single or pure grain specialty rices, according to Mike Holleman, director of culinary development for Indian Harvest, a supplier out of Bemidji, Minnesota. Indian Harvest began marketing rices such as Himalayan Red and Colusari Red as part of its blends that included white, brown and/or wild rice in the mix. “Now these colored rices are really gaining ground on their own,” he reports. “Many are heirloom varieties that we cultivate from an heirloom seed bank.”

Other pure grains that are catching on include Bamboo Rice, a short-grain pale green variety with an herbal flavor, and Purple Thai Rice, a glutinous rice similar to black or forbidden rice. “Although specialty rices add about 20 cents per serving in food costs, an operator can charge up to $1 more for that menu item. Each one has a unique back story to share,” says Holleman. “In addition to adding value, they add texture, color, flavor and versatility to the plate.” The blends are more economical—a point that’s attracting casual restaurants to these specialty rices.

Spec a specialty
The rise of Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, including Indian, Japanese, Thai, Turkish and Persian, has turned American diners on to aromatic rices. In the recent past, varieties such as jasmine, japonica and basmati had to be imported, but now U.S. rice farmers are growing aromatics. Here’s a guide:

  • Jasmine: Long, medium-thick grains; popcorn, subtle floral
  • Black and mahogany japonica: Medium-long grains; purple-black or dark brown; subtle sweet spiciness
  • Basmati: Long slender grains; popcorn, toasted nuts
  • Aromatic red: Medium-long grains;mahogany-honey-red color; sweet nuttiness

Hello Pasta
New York City
2 locations

As its name reveals, pasta is clearly the star at this new quickserve concept. “There were so many sandwich, pizza, burger and salad concepts, we wanted to do something different in the fast-casual segment,” says Gregory Baratte, who co-founded Hello Pasta with partners Laurent Lesort and Nicolas Barthelemy. “We believe this concept is right for the times, as people are returning to comfort foods and healthy carbs. It’s also convenient—70 percent of the business is takeout.”

Hello Pasta tried many brands before zeroing in on an imported Italian pasta in organic, whole wheat and regular varieties. They also purchase a Californiamade gluten-free pasta. Six different shapes rotate in on a regular basis, including fusilli, conghiglie, penne and rigatoni; customers mix and match their favorite with one of 11 sauces. “So far, Bolognese is the number one seller, but Sausage and Peas and Arabiata are close behind,” notes Baratte. The sauces are produced weekly in a central kitchen in Maine and delivered to the two locations. “They’re made in small batches and are low in sodium and preservative-free. Many of the ingredients are locally sourced, and our ultimate goal is 100 percent organic,” he adds.

As the partners look to expand to four New York City locations and into New England, Baratte expects more competitive pricing on pasta and other products. But the business model will remain the same: providing a good portion of quality pasta with an average check of $10.

Moe’s Southwest Grill
Atlanta, Georgia
420 locations

Last March, this fast-casual chain introduced Rice Bowls as an LTO to its burritocentric menu and they were an instant hit. Now the three bowls, which combine rice with black beans, grilled veggies, pico de gallo, cheese, condiments and either tofu, grilled chicken or grilled pork are permanently on Moe’s menu. That means Kevin Vandiver, director of supply chain, is buying a bit more rice.

“We’ve always had rice in our burritos, but now we’re purchasing 2.3 to 2.4 million pounds annually,” he reports. Vandiver is fussy about the product; he specs American-grown, long-grain parboiled white rice that’s only 4 percent broken per batch. The next spec down is 20 percent broken. “Chainwide, this product gives us the best balance of quality, consistency and price. We chose parboiled rice because it doesn’t require as much skill to cook and looks better in the bowl,” Vandiver explains. Each location cooks the rice daily in electric rice cookers.

Moe’s locks in prices with its rice miller through yearly contracts, but Vandiver sees some volatility ahead. “Heat stress on crops last summer has increased the production time on parboiled product,” he claims. “These delays will push prices up slightly, but not as high as global reports are predicting.”

Bertucci’s
Northborough, Massachusetts
93 locations

Pasta and rice are key to Bertucci’s Italian menu, and corporate chef Stefano Cordova is choosy about sourcing both. “Twice a year, I go to Italy to scope out pastas and find suppliers,” he reports. “I also work with companies that will make and cut pastas to my specs. I get both dry and fresh products and play with lots of different shapes and flavors, buying from several vendors to get the variety I want.” All the pasta sauces are made from scratch and tomatoes are grown exclusively for Bertucci’s.

The latest menu introductions fall under the “Brick Oven-Baked Pasta” heading and include Baked Penne Stefano (multigrain dry penne tossed in Bolognese sauce with crumbled chicken sausage, onions, garlic and fresh herbs topped with provolone) and Baked Tortellini & Chicken Gratinati (tri-color tortellini baked with three cheeses.) Fettucine, ravioli, gnocchi, cannelloni and lasagna—all fresh pastas—are perennial favorites.

“We’ll also be launching an extensive line of risottos in the spring,” says Cordova, who is currently developing variations with lobster, chicken and lemon risotto with asparagus. He is buying short-grain Arborio rice for these dishes.

A large portion of Bertucci’s pasta and rice supply is imported from Italy, which may become a challenge in 2011. “Italy is exporting more pasta to Asia. That coupled with higher commodity prices can spike the price of product,” says Cordova.