Having Mark Ladner boil dried gluten-free pasta for you is a bit like having Harry Houdini teach you a card trick.
The tall, bespectacled Ladner is the executive chef at New York City's Del Posto—the upscale crown jewel in Mario Batali's Italian empire. There, tasting menus start at $126 a person. Caviar and truffles flow from the kitchen faster than pours from $2,000 bottles of Barolo. You get the idea.
On the other side of the coin, Ladner is also the founder of Pasta Flyer, a still-in-the-works quick-service pop-up that slings only gluten-free pasta. Since it launched last year, Pasta Flyer has served bowls of noodles at a handful of northeastern universities (Harvard, Johnson & Wales, Yale, Drexel) this fall and occupied a storefront in Manhattan's Greenwich Village for a long weekend in December.
Wait, you may be asking yourself. Doesn't gluten-free pasta kind of suck?
According to Ladner, it doesn't have to. He's been experimenting with gluten alternatives at Del Posto for the past several years, driven by the number of diners who came in with allergies or requests for GF dishes.
"I started reverse engineering as I looked at food and realized there were a lot of places where gluten existed where it didn't have to," Ladner says. "Take supplì, a rice ball from Rome. It's basically overcooked risotto that's rolled in bread crumbs and fried. The bread crumbs don't necessarily add anything. We started coating them in an egg wash and rice flour instead—so it's rice coated in rice, not gluten."
After tinkering with the restaurant's breads, too, Ladner moved on to making gluten-free pasta, exploring various flours that would act in the same way as wheat flour (Thomas Keller's Cup4Cup is a favorite). He can now offer each and every shape and style of pasta at Del Posto in a gluten-free version, even the famous 100-layer lasagna.
"Wheat flour is a magical thing—when combined with water, it produces the elasticity that makes things chewy in that satisfying way," Ladner says. "It's also what makes bread fluffy and gives it crumb and sponge. There are some concessions you have to make if you're not using wheat flour. My goal is to minimize those concessions."
Hold up. Your brain again. If gluten is so magical, why go 100 percent gluten free at Pasta Flyer?
For one thing, safety. Without the space to boil them separately, and factoring in employee handling, it is too risky to cook gluten-free pasta alongside the traditional stuff without possible transference—which can be bad news for anyone with a serious allergy. And, Ladner thought, if you can serve a GF noodle that tastes just as good, why not turn everyone and their mother on to it?
For Pasta Flyer, Ladner tried countless brands and chose Bionaturae, an organic dried pasta from Pisa made with rice flour and potato flour, preferring the way it's essentially indistinguishable from wheat pasta after it's cooked. ("We'd like to make our own from scratch, but for this quick style of service, we'd need a factory," Ladner says.) The menu is simple and charmingly so: three pasta shapes (tube, screw and elbow), three sauces (porcini ragu, pesto, tomato) and some condiments to dress it all up. The pasta is cooked, reheated to order and tossed with the sauce of choice. And how did the GF go over? On its East Coast tour, Pasta Flyer served 5,000 portions (the plan is to eventually have a permanent space).
Ladner's chef de cuisine at Del Posto, Matt Abdoo, showed us how to make one signature combination in the restaurant's cavernous kitchen: "screws" of fusilli with pesto and peperonata (see the recipe). After tossing the pasta in the pesto, the brightest we've ever seen (the secret: blanching and shocking the basil), Abdoo, who's involved with Pasta Flyer, too, added dollops of the sweet-and-sour pepper-and-tomato sauce. "The good thing about gluten-free pasta is that it doesn't keep cooking as much when you take it out of the boiling water," he noted.
The dish is as vibrant, sunny and upbeat as the anime-inspired cartoon character that serves as Pasta Flyer's logo—quite a departure from the serious white tablecloths and dapper captains at Del Posto.
"I'm not rich," Ladner says. "It's important to provide helpful, nourishing and hedonistic experiences for people who aren't necessarily wealthy. It shouldn't be expensive, and I can do it as well as anybody."
We think he's being a touch modest, but we do know this: His gluten-free pasta bowls us over.
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