Where did the idea for a pasta restaurant come from?
Tim and I first started talking about opening one when we first met 10 years ago. It was during the Byron hamburger revolution, when the fast-casual movement was in its infancy, and people weren’t interested in the idea at the time. We struggled to sell the idea to backers then and so went on to open Trullo in Highbury instead.
What reignited the plans?
For two years, we really struggled to keep our heads above water at Trullo, but once we became established we started to focus on the future. We didn’t want to open another Trullo because we didn’t think we could run another creatively demanding restaurant, but we work a lot with pasta there and it has always been something Tim loves to cook. For us, the initial passion was to serve something that is really good to eat and really cheap. A lot of fast-food concepts in the UK are pretty well fleshed out, but the pasta bar is something that hasn’t really taken off. Many people have tried and failed to do one and we thought that we could do better.
Why have people failed to run successful pasta-only restaurants in the past?
Unlike, say, burgers, everyone prepares pasta at home. It’s the most frequently home-cooked meal in the UK when you look at how much pasta is bought in the supermarkets and people have a real familiarity with it. So, if you run a pasta-only restaurant, even a cheap one, the quality has got to be a hell of a lot better than what people can make at home, and often it isn’t. You’ve got to understand the science of pasta cooking.
Pasta science, you say...
The way that pasta cooks and absorbs water is crucial because it can dehydrate the sauces you put it with. Some pasta needs to be cooked 'mantecare’, by which you toss the pasta in the sauce while it’s in the pan, or padella. For example, when cooking linguine you boil it in water for six minutes and then add it to the sauce when it is al dente and then you work the bejesus out of it – you need to get a serious sweat on. This way, all the starch comes out of the pasta and emulsifies with the fat to create a more creamy sauce that is easier to digest. This science to cooking pasta is what a lot of places are lazy with.
How will Padella produce better quality pasta than others have?
We’ve got a couple of tricks up our sleeve, including building a kitchen that makes turning out high-quality pasta super easy and super quick to do. When you are cooking five different things at a time it’s hard to concentrate on quality, but the kitchen has been designed specifically to support pasta making.
What types are you serving?
We have used Trullo as our lab. There have been around 500 pastas on the menu at the restaurant during the past five years – some have lasted only a week and have never seen the light of day again, others have stayed longer. We’ve got about 40 or 50 that are absolute winners and, now we’ve got a sole focus on pasta at Padella, that number will grow. We’re going to serve flat pasta only, as well as filled, predominantly made using flour, and there will be some lesser known ones on the menu as well as more obvious ones.
Lesser known pastas, Such as?
In Tuscany they eat a pasta called pici, which is made from a slightly denser dough that doesn’t contain eggs. It’s a bit like thick spaghetti. It’s very labour-intensive but it’s so good and it’s a pasta you don’t often see in Italian restaurants over here, which we like.
What’s on the launch menu?
We’ll start with around eight to 10 dishes, including the pappardelle with eight-hour beef shin ragu that we serve at Trullo; squid ink tagliarini with mussels, chilli and oregano; and tagliatelle with wild mushrooms, with prices ranging from £7 to £10.50. We want it to be a similar price to what you pay at Pret a Manger for a sandwich and soup if someone just wants to come in for a quick bite. We believe that if the food’s good and we’re keenly priced, people will come.
What about the overall style of the restaurant?
It will have 25 covers on the ground floor, all bar seating, and then downstairs there will be space for another 35. We’ll roll pasta at a marble bar in the window so that people can see it being made. Some people will be in and out in 30 minutes although others will obviously hang around longer, and we expect the average spend to be around £20, which doesn’t make going there a big decision for many people.
And you’ll only be serving espresso?
Yes. We’ve tried to get under the skin of what makes Italian cuisine. When you spend a lot of time in Italy, you naturally take on some of their habits, and no Italian would dream of having a milky coffee after lunch. We will serve caffe corretto though, which is espresso with a bit of booze in it. We’ve fought a few battles over this already but we want people to come to Padella to eat and drink like an Italian.