clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

At America’s Hottest New Italian Restaurants, Pasta Comes to Life Behind Glass

Chefs across the country are bringing the classic Italian art into the full view of customers

The pasta room at Misi in Williamsburg.
Gary He/Eater NY

It’s been just a few short weeks since chef Missy Robbins opened her newest ode to Italian cuisine, Misi, in Williamsburg, New York, but already the restaurant is attracting attention for its pasta. Each day the restaurant churns out an enticing list of fresh noodles, from plump spinach and mascarpone-stuffed tortellini to flat linguine.

But while these plates are certainly the stars of the show, it’s the marvelous pasta-making process that has people on the streets stopping in their tracks. The action and essence of Misi takes place front and center in a 350-square-foot glassed-in pasta room facing the street. Here, patrons and passersby can pause to soak in the theater of pasta production. “People love watching people at work,” says Robbins. “The number of people standing on the street watching the team make pasta is astonishing.”

Misi is among a small collection of restaurants, including the Wolf’s Tailor in Denver, SheWolf in Detroit, and Felix in Los Angeles, that have incorporated glass-enclosed pasta activity into their interior design — bringing the classic Italian art into full focus for customers. Chinese restaurants in the U.S. have long featured glassed, windowed rooms where diners could glimpse chefs folding dumplings or pulling noodles by hand; Japanese soba restaurants often offer the same experience. The urge to apply that to Italian food is equally a throwback to the aesthetics of pastificios and laboratorios in the Boot as much as an element driven by the functional requirements of pasta production, the appeal of an open kitchen, and modern Instagram-happy culture.

Robbins didn’t set out to create a glassy shrine to pasta making. For her, having a dedicated pasta room was necessary for an efficient fresh pasta operation. At Lilia, the chef’s magnetic Williamsburg establishment, pasta became an unexpected hit, but the restaurant simply wasn’t designed for high levels of pasta production. “It’s been very rogue the way that we’ve had to dry pasta all over the restaurant [at Lilia],” she says. “So, when we decided to do this restaurant and knew it was going to be pasta-focused, it seemed like a very natural idea to have an isolated room for it.”

Chef Missy Robbins working in the pasta room at Misi
Evan Sung/courtesy Misi

Having a room devoted entirely to the craft of pasta was common when Robbins studied the process abroad in Italy. “The first place I worked in Italy you had a dedicated pasta room with just this woman who worked in it all day long,” she recalls. “It by no means was a glamorous room, but it was separate from the rest of the kitchen and it just gave her space space to work.” During a visit to Bologna, Robbins was similarly taken by a restaurant with a space devoted entirely to producing tortellini. “It’s this very pristine glassed-in room with two ladies just rolling out all day long,” she says. “That kind of became the dream.”

When it came to designing Misi, the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows felt like the “most natural place” to put the room, she says. Robbins’s pasta room utilizes temperature and humidity controls to make production more consistent. Robbins admits that she’s still toying with the equipment’s settings to best control the pasta-making environment. “It’s not quite the exact science that I thought it might be,” she says with a chuckle.

At SheWolf in Detroit, Michigan, chef Anthony Lombardo has been captivating customers in the dining room with his 80-square-foot, glassed-in pasta room since June. SheWolf sets itself apart by taking the extra step of milling 100 pounds of imported Italian grain per day into flour using a machine. This all takes place in the pasta room, which is separated from the kitchen and in full view of the dining room. The whole operation is presided over by a photo of actor Stanley Tucci, who Lombardo says represents the “distinguished, classy Italian-American.”

Aside from the grain mill, mechanical sheeter for flattening dough, and extruder for shaping pasta, the room is kept relatively traditional. Lombardo says that the inspiration came, in part, from a desire to keep the process separate from the rest of the happenings in the kitchen. “For milling, especially, we weren’t sure exactly how much dust it was going to create and how much noise that was going to make,” he says. “So we knew it needed to keep it outside the regular kitchen.” The glass wall elements took cues from Lombardo’s experiences with restaurants and pasta factories — known as pastificios — in Italy where people could often view the cooking process behind a window.

The dining room — and pasta room — at SheWolf
Jesse David Green

The milling process at SheWolf, as it turned out, was not especially dusty. However, the room has become an attraction in itself. “The table that sits next to it has become the highest requested table,” Lombardo says, and it’s become highly Instagrammable. “Especially when the pasta is being made, people want to actually see it and take little Boomerangs and Instastories.”

Customers also get a front-row seat to the transparent pasta nerve center at modern Italian hotspot Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles. The restaurant, which opened in April 2017, fondly refers to it as the “pasta laboratorio” and chef Evan Funke is its mad scientist. Funke strives to create ideal pasta dough conditions in the 144-square-foot room, which incorporates special equipment to control humidity and temperature.

“Pasta is very much an animal, much like bread, and it’s going to be directly affected by its immediate environment,” Funke says. “The more that you can control the room, the better the outcome.” Felix’s pasta team carefully monitors and adjusts the room’s temperature and humidity. All of the measurements along with production numbers and results are meticulously logged.

In general, Funke says he’s searching for a climate that’s roughly akin to the “ambient temperature in Bologna,” where he’s devoted more than 10 years to learning his craft. “Throughout the year, when I visit a Bologna, I take temperatures [and] humidity in those places where I make pasta,” he says, “and over many, many years with a lot of tinkering, I’ve found the sweet spot where it needs to be — where the pasta remains supple at all times.” Depending on the style of pasta dough or the season, the restaurant makes adjustments to the environment in the room.

Like the others, the pasta room has become one of Felix’s most popular features, often documented on social media. But the room’s aesthetic benefits came by accident: Funke always knew that Felix would have a traditional laboratorio on the premises, though the location and presentation underwent discussions. The space’s previous tenant featured a wine room in the middle of the restaurant. When Funke first saw it, he knew that wine cellar was where he wanted to put his pasta room. There were debates, he says, amongst his partners about whether it was wise to devote so much expensive square footage in the dining room, but Funke’s arguments won out.

Funke also decided to keep the glass clear — something he believes heightens customers’ appreciation for their meal. “It creates a true conversation between the pasta makers, the restaurant, and also the clientele who are eating this pasta and literally watched it being made,” he says. “If you sit down at Felix and you eat a bowl of trofie al pesto, and you look in through the glass and you see some guy knocking out trofie and you see how many are on your plate, you know that that guy is literally doing 160 repetitions just for you.”

The experience, Funke says, is “a conversation starter” and a bit of dinner theater, as well. But while the pasta rooms are certainly educational and pleasing to the eye, it’s the product — and how the two connect to each other — that keeps people coming back for more. The room “really brings this process — a beautiful process that I love so much — into the dining room,” Funke says.

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day