Porano Pasta: Gerard Craft Uses His Noodle to Fill the Niche Between Fine Dining and Fast Food
The week in late January when Porano Pasta finally let in its first giddy customers, a colleague in California e-mailed me about it. Not the Missouri town of California. The West Coast state of California. The one 1,800 miles away—too far to drop by for an $8 fast-casual lunch at an Italian joint in Downtown St. Louis. But when Gerard Craft’s Niche Food Group launches a new concept, it’s big news everywhere.
Similar rumblings started last summer in Nashville, where a second Porano location will open this spring. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were talking about this restaurant in Porano, Italy—the town Craft credits with revolutionizing how he thinks about hospitality.
Why the buzz? Craft himself is one reason. The talented restaurateur behind several of the region’s most successful eateries—Niche, Brasserie by Niche, Taste by Niche and Pastaria—is colorful, personable and endlessly creative. The fast-casual trend itself is another. Lots of chefs are on a mission to do quick, high-quality food at reasonable prices.
But there’s more: Porano has the vibe of a big potluck meal where every cook is the equivalent of a 2015 James Beard Award-winning Best Chef: Midwest. You feel it when the front-line servers dish your meal fixings out of big pots, offering a quick description of each sauce or cheese. You put the pairings together, and no one ever bats an eye. It makes you feel a little like you’re on the same elevated plane as Craft, if only for a few hallucinogenic moments.
Worth the Wait
Anticipation has been building for months, as Craft and his team redid the interior of a former Asian-inspired restaurant in the MX complex on Washington Avenue. Customers line the two-story foyer within minutes after the doors open, and the choreographed dance in the kitchen begins. More than a dozen people work the food line and cashier stations, simultaneously serving and sharing information about whatever the customer has ordered. If it gets old repeating the same words for hundreds of people every day, they don’t let on.
Craft said from the get-go that he intended for Porano to have the feel of his sit-down restaurants even at a fast-food pace, and he trained his staff well in preparation. Granted, he’s not exactly inventing the wheel—from the greeter ushering customers into line to the bussers gently encouraging the turnover of tables, it’s a familiar fast-casual scene. The kinks to work out are minor (like how to order frozen desserts after your meal without feeling like you’re cutting in line).
Worth Its Weight in Gold
What’s really impressive is that Craft has pulled off the food. Each biodegradable bowl is a mini-masterpiece. It’s clear that a serious amount of thought went into proportions and serving sizes and textures—not to mention ingredients and flavors and seasonings. Nothing is gloopy or dry or wilted. The pasta isn’t sticky or greasy or watery or any of the other evils too often associated with pre-cooked noodles. Romaine and baby kale are fresh and tender. The roasted vegetables are cooked to perfection, and they aren’t around long enough to get soggy afterward. Not even the Brussels sprouts.
The risotto balls with Pomodoro sauce are especially delicious. They come as a foursome in little brown bags. This is one serving. Take my word for it. They’re a perfect combination of a crispy breadcrumb exterior and meltingly tender Arborio rice mixed with cheese on the interior. I meant to share, but it just wasn’t happening.
Ditto for the gelato pops. They seem large-ish. And then they somehow disappear. Most days there are three flavors: vanilla, mango and Askinoshie chocolate. Sometimes there are others, like the willpower-melting salted caramel.
Though Porano wasn’t yet open for dinner when we visited, the hours will soon extend into the evening. Perhaps there will be some slow times then, when customers can feel comfortable lingering a while over a Civil Life beer or carafe of wine. While it kind of defeats the purpose of American fast-casual dining, it seems like a desire the folks in Porano, Italy, might understand.
Tips for a top-notch experience at Porano Pasta
Top dish: Everything is better with crispy bits of minced garlic sprinkled on top.
Popular pour: If it’s after 5pm, the Negroni slushie. Otherwise, flavored San Pellegrino.
Best place to perch: The foosball table on the upper-level balcony is both incongruous and perfect.
Insider tip: Order on a whim, based on what looks good in the moment—otherwise it’s all too likely you’ll overthink the 99,825 possible menu combinations.
Where to go
634 Washington Ave.
Hours: Lunch daily; dinner coming soon