Chef Chatter: Why pasta makes the perfect fast casual dish

Chef Chatter: Why pasta makes the perfect fast casual dish

By Pino Luongo, owner and chef, Coco Pazzo

Editor's note: Chef Chatter is a series featuring chef-authored blogs. If you'd like to write a Chef Chatter blog, send your idea to Cherryh Cansler at

When you think about it, in Italy, pasta has been a fast food for over a century. Quick, easy to prepare, and inexpensive. In contemporary America, where price and quick service are prized above all, where consumers demand quality and fast service in a casual setting, pasta can play a dominant role.

It is important to remember that pasta dishes are much less about the pasta than they are about the sauce. What separates an average meal from a great one all boils down to the preparation and flavor of the sauces. When you think about it, this is not much different from other international cuisines, where the sauces make or break a dish. A Spaghetti Carbonara or Bolognese can taste completely different when prepared by different chefs, despite the recipe being the same. 

As the owner/chef of many of New York City's premier Italian restaurants (Il Cantonori, Le Madri, Morso, Mad 61, Tuscan Square, and the original Coco Pazzo on the Upper East Side), I've made a special name for myself as a pasta sauce master. Pasta is forever and, for everyone, the extraordinary pasta dishes have been a highlight in each of my restaurants. Most of these dishes were recently reborn this March with the launch of the dual-concept and classic, Tuscan-inspired fare of Coco Pazzo Kitchen and Trattoria in the SoHo area of Manhattan. 

By day, the fast casual lunch service at Coco Pazzo Kitchen features a café area where dishes can be ordered for take-out as well as for a quick-service, sit-down dining experience within the restaurant and Coco Pazzo Trattoria transforms into a fine-dining experience while still maintaining its casual, homey atmosphere and service.

From a commercial standpoint, pasta sauces, properly prepared, can be the focal point of a great fast-casual dining experience. Sauces by their very nature can be prepared way ahead of time and be cold stored, which can also be made in large quantities and distributed safely, easily and consistently.

From the pasta standpoint, commercial production has improved enormously, with several commercial brands producing extremely high-quality pasta in a wide variety of cuts: long, short, twisted, etc.

At Coco Pazzo, pasta is the focal point of our fine-casual dining experience. Coco Pazzo can deliver a pasta-based fine-dining experience within 10 minutes from order time. And, to take the dining experience to a new level, Coco Pazzo now offers a new concept in pasta dishes: Piatto Unico, which loosely translated stands for a "complete dinner plate."

A Piatto Unico is actually a deconstructed pasta dish, where the elements of the sauce are served separately alongside the finished pasta recipe. For example, "Pappardelle allo Stracotto" is a combination of fresh pasta, pappardelle sautéed with a brisket sauce, and 2-3 slices of brisket, all served side by side on a single long plate.

In other words, Piatto Unico is the concept of making a fine pasta sauce and simultaneously separating its main ingredient from the sauce, using the liquid to sauté the pasta, and offering the main ingredient (brisket, in the above example) served it in its own natural state along with pasta. It's a totally satisfying, complete meal in one generous dish… 

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