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This story originally appeared in the print edition of Sapore, a publication on Italian foods and flavors. For more Sapore content, visit FSRmagazine.com.
Growing up in Yonkers, New York, and later Greenwich, Connecticut, Rick Gencarelli enjoyed large homemade meals with his Italian family every Sunday. Back then, Gencarelli's mother, a first-generation American who learned the culinary trade from her Naples, Italy–born mother, prepared classic Italian dishes like Sunday Pork Ragu and Spaghetti Aglio Olio.
Now Gencarelli is leveraging those memories and re-creating those meals at Grassa, his Portland, Oregon–based fast casual that brings an assortment of forward-thinking pasta-based dishes to the masses.
"Italian is my wheelhouse. It's my personal background and my culinary background," says Gencarelli, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
In the two years before opening Grassa, Gencarelli studied the pasta market and arrived at an eye-opening conclusion. In the restaurant industry, pasta largely existed in two extremes: super low end or super high end. The middle—a spot where families could come or office workers could visit for a quick bite of high-quality homemade pasta at a reasonable price—was vacant.
Grassa, Gencarelli reasoned, could fill that void, though he wasn't quite sure how a fast-casual concept dishing handmade pasta, an admittedly novel idea, would be received.
"We were certainly worried that people would struggle to embrace this model, because consumers don't generally associate Italian with quick service," Gencarelli says. "It was a leap of faith."
Three years after its opening, however, Grassa has most certainly been embraced. Under exterior signage reading "Handcrafted Pasta," guests pour into Grassa each day to devour one of the dozen or so pastas Gencarelli's team produces daily from its visible pasta bar. The success has fueled a second Grassa unit, which Gencarelli opened in Portland in April.
Grassa isn't alone. Increasingly, authentic Italian cuisine is available across the U.S. not just in high-end eateries or family-style diners, but in fast casuals, as well.
Fast casuals break from the norm
Across the country, a number of ambitious chefs and restaurateurs have ditched "Americanized" versions of Italian dishes—the spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, and fried calamari that frequently dominates the space—for more tried-and-true Italian dishes prepared and served in a fast-casual environment.
There's Piada Italian Street Food, a 30-unit chain founded in 2010 by former Bravo Brio head Chris Doody that now has a presence in Ohio, Minnesota, and Texas. In San Diego, there's Biga, a new eatery launched last New Year's Eve by CIA-trained chef Tae Dickey.
In New York City, there's The Meatball Shop, a six-unit concept that bases its namesake dish on a classic Neapolitan meatball recipe. And in St. Louis, there's Porano Pasta, a fast-casual spot opened by James Beard Award winner Gerard Craft, the force behind the acclaimed Pastaria, a full-service spot that bills itself as "a taste of real Italy in St. Louis." Porano Pasta is no less ambitious in its mission, says Craft, who developed the fast casual over three years and numerous trips to Italy.
"In the United States, people think Italian is one way, but we're starting to see a lot of concepts prove otherwise," says Matt Harding, the director of culinary at Piada.
Though Italian is a beloved cuisine across the American landscape—a recent National Restaurant Association poll reported that 61 percent of consumers choose Italian food at least once a month for restaurant meals—the category has largely struggled to make deep inroads in the fast-casual marketplace, one that has seen other ethnic fare, principally Mexican and Asian, find solid footing with an assortment of independents, regional chains, and larger national players.
But this rising crop of Italian fast casuals—many of them powered by chefs eager to push deeper into the evolving fast-casual space—are not only putting Italian on the table, but doing so with a respect for the European nation's honored traditions characterized by handmade pastas, imported ingredients, and time-honored preparation methods.
"Italian hasn't been mastered yet in the fast-casual space, and people are up for the challenge and enjoyment of it," Harding says.
And in a fast-casual field littered with burger, chicken, and sandwich concepts, genuine Italian cuisine is a welcome addition to the restaurant landscape.
"The answer certainly isn't more of the same," Harding adds. "As guests are becoming more educated about food, we are seeing food democracy. They want to customize and tailor their experience, and they demand quality and convenience."
Where authenticity fits
At these emerging fast-casual Italian eateries, authenticity is an important piece—though not necessarily a confining or limiting element—of the story. Much of authentic Italian food relies on simplicity and purity of flavors.
The Braised Chard at The Meatball Shop, for example, derives from a Roman recipe with a Jewish influence in which the traditional use of salt pork is replaced by braised anchovies in order to adhere to religious eating restrictions.
At Grassa, Gencarelli points to two of his most popular menu items, both of which embrace Italian authenticity. The Sunday Pork Ragu is a pork shoulder slowly simmered in San Marzano tomatoes alongside yellow onion, garlic cloves, white wine, and olive oil, while the Spaghetti Aglio Olio features olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper, Grana Padano cheese, and bread crumbs. Both are uncomplicated dishes that honor the Italian tradition of using clean, flavorful, and natural ingredients.
"With a lot of Italian food, less is more, and you're using time and patience to get it right," Gencarelli says.
The calamari at Piada is similarly straightforward. The squid is lightly breaded and then flashed in the pan before serving.
"We are not hiding it under aiolis and tartar sauce," Harding says.