By Sean Moon
Long the go-to meal for doting Italian grandmothers, spaghetti-loving kids and comfort-food aficionados, pasta has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. Today, the use of pasta in Canadian restaurants is less influenced by Nonna and more by such modern factors as clean-eating, plant-based or gluten-free diets and a world of unique and innovative ingredients.
While semolina-based white pasta is still ubiquitous in most Canadian restaurants — even those not billing themselves as Italian eateries — this time-tested traditional favourite has gained even greater popularity thanks to an influx of global flavours, ethnic influences and ingredients as diverse as ancient grains, lentils, chickpeas and even seaweed. And it seems that Canadian diners are more eager than ever to give pasta another look. This opens up plenty of new creative avenues for Canadian chefs to explore as well as giving operators a chance to take advantage of service trends such as family-style dining.
Pasta: A blank Canvas
“Many Canadian restaurants have taken on a ‘veggie-forward’ approach with their menus, paying more attention to incorporating vegetables into their pasta dishes versus meats and seafood,” says Lorenzo Boni, Executive Chef at leading pasta supplier, Barilla Pasta. “This allows chefs to incorporate ingredients that are high in nutrients – which is important to consumers – while still maintaining and developing bold flavours.
“Shared plates are also on the rise, appealing to an audience that want more from their dining-out experience and may not want to commit to a single dish. This is a play on the family-style approach, which creates a shared experience at the table.”
Joanne Fagioli, customer service manager at Queen’s Pasta in Toronto, says trends such as using popular and healthy ingredients like kale and quinoa are helping keep pasta top-of-mind with Canadian diners.
“Consumers want pasta that is healthy and delicious with inspiring combinations for a complete meal,” says Fagioli. “This includes a variety of grains, meat, nuts and vegetables.”
Healthy options abound
Although restaurant customers can enjoy a wider-than-ever selection of healthy pasta varieties, including such options as whole-grain, organic or gluten-free pasta, other ingredients that are easily paired with fresh or dried pasta are just as important when it comes to developing the perfect pasta dish. Whether it is using fresh, local produce when creating spiralized vegetables such as carrots or zucchini in vegan dishes or adding better-for-you ingredients to a traditional pasta foundation, consumers want all of the benefits that such menu items have to offer — including being kinder to the planet and environment.
“Many industry professionals are opening the doors to menus and recipe development consisting of only locally grown or produced foods,” says Boni. “Sustainable food choices are also having an impact on recent recipe innovation, with the average consumer being concerned and more aware of their environmental impact. Chefs and restaurateurs are mindful of origin, source and status in the food chain when developing and selecting ingredients for pasta recipes.”
Boni says that while traditional semolina pastas continue to be widely popular, gluten-free and plant-based markets are continuing to explode as well. “Canadian restaurant diners are turning to alternative pasta options, such as gluten-free pasta, as they become more and more educated about dietary restrictions.”
New twist on an old favourite
Also increasingly popular are such healthy pasta varieties as spelt, buckwheat/soba or black bean, as well as pasta-style replacements including spiralized vegetables, shirataki (made from yam starch) and brown rice pasta (gluten free).
Always looking for creative ways to expand their menus and incorporate a wider array of ingredients, today’s chefs are finding pasta to be a versatile option for both flavour potential and recipe innovation.
“Over the last few years, ‘bowls’ have been a big trend in the Canadian food scene that many restaurants are starting to adapt to their ongoing menus,” says Boni. “It’s expected that more bowls of various kinds will emerge, with rice not necessarily being the starch vehicle of choice. Other starchy ingredients, such as pasta, are becoming the base choice for several new ‘non-traditional’ bowls.”
It appears that Nonna was onto something all along. For a healthy, tasty and satisfying dish to please palates of all ages, make sure you are giving pasta a second chance and your customers a menu offering they will return to time and again.
Sean Moon is the managing editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News.