Mark Ladner has one goal: to make me a bowl of al dente pasta in under three minutes. Three minutes is a comically short window, but he’s determined. He plunges his index finger into a 205° pot, then lifts it to his mouth to test the salt levels. In approval, he dunks a pre-portioned knot of pasta into the water. Thirty seconds later, a timer beeps, and perfectly al dente fusilli emerges. Also, it’s organic.
We’re at Pasta Flyer, the streamlined Greenwich Village restaurant that Ladner opened with partner Nastassia Lopez after a long stint helming fine-dining icon Del Posto. Everything is pre-portioned; everything is timed. It’s an exacting ballet and the key to Pasta Flyer’s mission: $7 bowls of pasta, prepared fresh with sauce and toppings, served in under three minutes. It’s the only fast food restaurant in the world whose pink ombre walls are meant to evoke the bellinis at the Harry’s Bar in Venice, but it’s this mix of high tastes and low costs that Ladner is betting on.
Pasta Flyer’s gluten-free penne, whole grain rigatoni, and fried cauliflower
“The idea, after basically retiring from fine dining, was to transfer my energy to a different space and to get away from this really exclusive, elitist sort of environment,” Ladner says. “I want to try to make it much more inclusive, a lot more populist, and give a larger demographic access to my experience of tasty food.”
Customers at Del Posto may have dined on spaghetti ai ricci de mare and rabbit sausage orecchiette, but Pasta Flyer’s menu is stocked with more standard fare: organic fusilli, whole grain rigatoni, and gluten-free penne are paired with marinara sauce, basil pesto, and “Nonna’s meat ragu.” The portions are reasonable, and the sauces are light. This is a bowl of pasta you can eat for lunch without needing a mid-afternoon nap. Vegetable antipasti balance out the menu: Fresh ricotta punctuates a bowl of broccoli rabe and sweet peppers; marinated fried cauliflower is dotted with capers and raisins that burst into a one-two punch of sweet fruit and brine.
The key to these flavors lies in carefully sourced ingredients, still a rarity in the fast food world. Pasta Flyer’s rigatoni is whole wheat, but each speckled beige tube is smooth, not brown and crumbly like some (disappointing) whole wheat offerings. It comes from the pasta company Felicetti, in the northern Italian town of Predazzo. Some of Pasta Flyer’s flour comes from Arizona desert
durham wheat, some is a monogranoheirloom from Puglia. All of it is milled fresh. “The pasta itself has this unbelievable resilience,” Ladner says. “I could make you a bowl, you could put the cover on hot, you can take it home, put it in your refrigerator overnight, warm it up for breakfast tomorrow, and it would still be al dente. That’s not because of me; that’s just the quality of the pasta.”
Pasta Flyer is in the former home of Chipotle NEXT, the fast-casual Mexican chain’s experimental restaurant, which now operates just a few doors down. At the time of my visit, a Chipotle sign still hung in the prep area. For a new restaurant hoping to enter the fast-casual game, it’s a literal reminder of the standard that’s been set.
Other attempts to bring pasta to the fast-casual world haven’t taken off, but Ladner is hoping that a calculated combination of old world flavors, technology, and precision will make Pasta Flyer a success. Pesto and marinara are held hot and at the ready in tiny containers—letting sauce sit too long on “infinitely absorbable” pasta will make it soggy, so to-go orders receive half their sauce on the side. He uses an adapted version of a technique called IQF freezing, invented by Clarence Birdseye in the 1950s, to get his pasta from frozen to al dente in three minutes every time.
It’s easy to look at Pasta Flyer and get lost in the technology. But, at the heart of the operation, beneath the timers and the freezing, is a foundation in tradition. The line moves fast, but the antipasti marinates slowly. Freezing pasta allows for speed, but freshly milled flour provides integrity. It’s a calculated formula, but the result is a thoughtfully made, affordable lunch worth lingering over. And that pasta really was perfectly al dente.
Pasta Flyer’s open kitchen and ordering system