Porano Pasta, the new Italian fast casual from James Beard–winning chef Gerard Craft (“Best Chef: Midwest” in 2015), opened today in St. Louis, Missouri.

The new concept, Craft’s fifth restaurant under Niche Food Group and first with counter service, lets customers build their own bowls using a variety of authentic Italian ingredients. Porano is named after a town north of Rome that inspired the new restaurant.

“It’s really a place where I fell in love with Italian culture more than just the food. I’ve been to Italy, but never before had I really met families that lived there and chefs that lived there,” he says. “We met all these people and sat down at the table with all these people we barely knew, and it was like we were family instantly. … We wanted to bring that level of hospitality and warmth into a fast-food concept.”

Located in downtown St. Louis, Porano is a two-story space that features bright, modern finishes with art from local artists, as well as hand-cut oak communal tables.

Guests walk down the line at Porano to customize their own bowls, selecting a base, sauce, protein, and toppings. Bases include hand-made pasta—both organic semolina and gluten-free—as well as Italian rice, organic farro, and a romaine and kale blend. There are 11 sauces, ranging from Pomodoro and Alfredo to a Pumpkin Seed and Lime Pesto and Garlic and Chili Oil. There are also 11 toppings (including cheeses, nuts, and vegetables) and a half dozen proteins.

Craft says his team intentionally created a personal interaction between staff and guests so his team could educate customers on which flavors pair best together.

“When guests come down the line, they’re put at ease by our staff,” he says. “You’re greeted with a smile, and you’re greeted with knowledgeable staff members who understand the menu, who eat the food every single day, and who know it inside out, because they also make the food every day.”

The fast casual is intent on delivering new and authentic flavors that go beyond what’s common at Italian restaurants in the U.S. For example, there is the Smoky Sunday Sugo sauce, which Craft says is based on a sauce with roots in Naples, Italy. The traditional offering features meat and tomato sauce that simmer together all day, he says; the sauce is usually served over pasta, while the meat is traditionally served as a second course.

“We’ve done a little twist on it, where we smoke the meat before we simmer it, and it gives it a little bit more of a Midwestern flavor,” Craft says. “But it’s kind of smoky, unctuous from the pork, and bright from the tomatoes.”

As a chef-driven concept, Porano is also committed to using the best ingredients possible, which includes seasonal and local sourcing. Craft says the fast casual sources the same kind of ingredients as a full-service restaurant might, which includes using a whole hog for various menu items.

“We look at the food system and how messed up it is, and the pipeline used for ingredients within fast food, and I think that’s become something that’s really important for us: where we’re getting our ingredients,” Craft says. “We need to make it the same as if we were getting ingredients for any one of our other restaurants.”

The Porano opening comes just one week after California chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson opened the doors to LocoL, their buzzed-about quick-service concept that aims to bring healthy, affordable meals to food deserts (areas with limited access to wholesome foods) across the country.

While Choi and Patterson envision thousands of LocoL units across the U.S., Craft says his team is taking their time on Porano, with plans to grow organically instead of through venture capital. He adds that the goal for now is to open a second unit in the suburbs of St. Louis to see how the restaurant performs with more of a family clientele.

“As a father of two, I think I’d be pretty excited to have it where I live,” he says. “That’s as far as we’re thinking: Let’s see where it does best and why.”

By Sam Oches

Consumer Trends, Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, News, Porano Pasta