When it comes to limited-service Italian, pizza reigns supreme. Five-time James Beard Award finalist chef Gerard Craft believes he can change that with Porano Pasta + Gelato, a new fast-casual concept slated to open in downtown St. Louis this summer.
“People haven’t done a lot of pasta because it’s hard, and we’re willing to take that on,” Craft says. “Not that pizza’s easy by any means, but it’s easier to do a mediocre pizza all the time than it is to do a mediocre pasta.”
As owner of Niche Food Group, Craft already has an impressive portfolio of four full-service restaurants. But now he wants to raise the bar within the fast-casual space both in terms of quality and ingenuity.
“With pasta it just requires somebody actually putting forth some effort,” Craft says. Producing fresh pasta daily and hiring highly trained chefs are two examples of how he intends to elevate the cuisine. To keep the operation scalable, Porano will use a customization model similar to the one first championed by Chipotle’s founders whom Crafts calls “geniuses.”
“I think we’ve done well at editing ourselves and keeping the menu small, but since it’s customizable, it offers you way more options with a little bit less prep,” Craft says. “We’re not trying to put [out] a menu of 30 different sauces.”
The assembly line of ingredients includes standards—pasta and gluten-free pasta—as well intriguing bases like faro and organic focaccia and proteins including hormone-free braised beef brisket and organic tofu. An inventive selection of sauces like the pistachio pesto furthers the variety of flavor profiles.
“Recently I’ve been eating faro with salsa verde and almonds and roasted vegetables, and topped with some pickled golden raisins and pecorino cheese,” Craft says. “It’s almost like an Italian rice bowl; it gives me a ton of fuel for the day.”
Beyond the food creativity, Craft wants Porano to have a connection that he finds lacking in many quick serves. He named the establishment after a small town in the Italian province of Umbria, but the menu encompasses southern Italy, as well.
“One of the problems with fast casual is that in many instances there’s nothing personal involved, so you’re getting concepts that are really factory-made and executed with no soul,” Craft says. “We want something with personality that means a lot to us and that we’re really proud of—just like all of our other restaurants.”
Eventually the plan is to open multiple Porano locations in St. Louis and possibly farther afield. He’s also experimenting with a weekly pop-up called Brasserie Burger+Brat inside one of his full-service establishments, which could become another quick-service concept in its own right.
But Craft is in no rush to grow Porano Pasta + Gelato at a breakneck pace.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on these kind of restaurants to open up thousands in the first year,” Craft says. “But when you really look at all the great ones, they all started pretty slowly.”
By Nicole Duncan