In mid-January, chef and restaurateur Gerard Craft had a nontraditional task on his to-do list: use the ride-sharing platform Uber to deliver fresh pasta to hungry customers across the city.
An innovative restaurant concept deserves special promotional buildup, after all – although Craft’s restaurants hardly suffer from a lack of popularity.
Long admired by critics and the restaurant community for his Niche Food Group establishments – Niche, Taste, Brasserie and Pastaria – Craft won national recognition from the James Beard Foundation in 2015 when he was named Best Chef: Midwest. With his fast-casual concept, Porano Pasta, Craft has landed Downtown for the first time, serving customizable pasta made quickly and made well.
“The biggest challenge with opening Porano was that we’re entering entirely new territory,” Craft says. “We’re learning every day. You start with a menu, and then you start doing it and fine-tuning it. Like any establishment, it’s something in motion.”
Craft says he’s been attracted to the fast-casual model for several years, as it has the potential to not only offer affordable food fast, but also an experience that can still connect with diners. He cites popular fast-casual chains throughout the country as inspiration, including national brands like Shake Shack and Cava Grill, and Pizzeria Locale in Colorado and Kansas City, which is owned by Chipotle.
“Cooks always have this weird position of being not-rich people who cook in the most expensive restaurants in the country,” Craft says. “It never fits us as cooks. It’s what we do; it’s our job, but I wanted to open a place where the food is not expensive but still flavorful and delicious.” Working alongside Porano executive chef Michael Petres, Craft has developed a lineup where the most expensive ingredient combination clocks in at around $9.
Porano’s menu is divided into bases, sauces, proteins and toppings. Steamed Arborio rice, organic farro, house-extruded pasta (including a gluten-free variety) or salad greens can be topped with dry-rubbed and slow-roasted pork shoulder, beef meatballs, local Mofu spicy tofu roasted with garlic and chiles, marinated grilled chicken or seasonal roasted vegetables.
Sauces include a classic pomodoro; smoky Sunday sugo, slowly simmered with smoked pork; red-pepper sauce made with roasted sweet peppers, tomatoes, sherry vinegar and harissa chile paste; and a twist on Pastaria favorite cacio e pepe: alfredo e pepe. Top it all off with fresh herbs, spicy honey, Grana Padano, pecorino cheese or crispy garlic.
Craft is especially excited to be offering St. Louisans southern Italian panzerotti, which resemble small fried calzones filled with mozzarella, meatballs and more.
To drink, fun takes on an Italian granita include a Negroni and a nonalcoholic strawberry-lime slushie. Porano features two exclusive house wines by Scarpetta on tap – Rosso and Bianco – as well as a Porano-exclusive beer from St. Louis-based The Civil Life Brewing Co. For dessert, Craft debated how to make the process quicker than the gelato bar at Pastaria. The answer? A freezer full of gelato pops from Pastaria executive pastry chef Anne Croy, in flavors including salted caramel, vanilla, mango and chocolate sourced from Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Missouri.
Just as the food is made with care, no detail was spared in the restaurant’s interior, accented with work from local artist Sasha Aleksandr Malinich. “We wanted something sophisticated and personal,” Craft says. Communal and smaller wood-tables designed by David Stine Woodworking, a white marble counter, antique and new lighting fixtures blended together plus bright graphic accents by St. Louis creative agency Atomicdust all create an eclectic combination of new- and old-world aesthetics. Upstairs, TVs and a foosball table invite customers to kick back and enjoy the restaurant’s casual and welcoming experience.
“I think in the past, people have thought of fast casual as a lunch-type thing, but we’re trying to deliver more of a dining experience between hospitality, design and the level of the food,” Craft says. “We want to change the perception of what dining has to be – we’re all looking for good options, good food and good experiences.”
Now that Porano is up and running, Craft is working tirelessly toward his next goal. This summer, Pastaria’s second location – and the first Niche Food Group restaurant outside of the St. Louis area – will open in Nashville, Tennessee.
“It’s fun because every time I go down to Nashville, I talk to more people about coming up to St. Louis and eating all the food that’s going on here,” Craft says. “A lot of people from St. Louis head to Nashville for long weekends. One of our missions is to get people to use St. Louis a little more.”
Helmed by executive chef Josh Poletti, Pastaria Nashville will work with local farmers to add some tweaks to the St. Louis menu that better reflect local and seasonal ingredients. The restaurant also features an expansive green area outside with a bocce ball court.
“It’s kind of a big test,” Craft says about opening a restaurant outside of St. Louis. “Are people going to come where it’s not just on our name and reputation? Are they going to come for the food? I don’t know; that’s the biggest test. That’s why we’re doing it.”
Pastaria, 8 City Blvd., Nashville, Tennessee, pastariastl.com
Porano Pasta, 634 Washington Ave., Downtown, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.833.6414, poranopasta.com