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Pasta topped with caviar and uni at Sorella.
Pasta topped with caviar and uni at Sorella
Lauren Saria

In the Bay Area, Pasta Enters Its Innovative Era

Bay Area chefs are doing previously unthinkable things to pasta – and we can’t get enough

Let’s address the elephant in the room: The Bay Area has happily entered its fermented-everything era, and miso is everywhere. Case in point, miso has even taken over a corner of the menu that, until recently, seemed to be immune to blazing trends: the high-end pasta dish. In recent months, creative and surprising pasta dishes featuring the popular umami bomb have been popping up all over the Bay Area. But look closer and you’ll notice miso is just one example of the many ways Bay Area chefs are getting playful and adventurous with pasta. Vegetables and fruits previously foreign to the pasta landscape, crunchier textures, bold flavors, multicultural inspirations — all of this is now happening to fettuccine, agnolotti, and gnocchi near you.

“The food industry tends to go back and forth between embracing traditions and pushing for new flavors,” says Finn Stern, chef and co-owner of Oakland hot spot Daytrip. “Pasta is having that innovative moment right now.” Since opening its doors in October 2021, the restaurant has been putting mind-bending spaghetti dishes on the menu. Currently, we can’t get enough of the miso butter pasta with tomato miso, kelp pear, gochugaru, and chiles.

In the Bay Area dining scene, which has always been seasonality and ingredient-led, an “innovative moment” really means the sky’s the limit. Take vegetables, for example. While classic meatless pastas heavily rely on tomatoes or mushrooms, recently opened restaurants go way beyond. At new Oakland restaurant Acre, potato gnocchi is paired with Tokyo turnips. At Itria, which opened amid the crudo boom of 2022, you’ll occasionally find pastas embellished with celery root, radicchio, and pumpkin. On the Flour + Water pasta tasting menu, cabbage and daikon make appearances.

Sorella, a relative newcomer to Polk Street’s lively dining scene, dishes out tortelli made from golden brown cocoa-flavored dough, filled with kabocha squash and sprinkled with toasted walnuts and fried Brussels sprouts — and, of course, red miso butter. “We’re getting a little bit more adventurous with our vegetarian pastas,” Sorella’s chef deinse de cuisine, Denise St. Onge, concedes. “That historically hasn’t been a strength of the San Francisco dining scene. It used to be just pesto, or tomato sauce.”

Fruit, too — an unthinkable idea in the terrain of Bolognese and cacio e pepe — has been carving a niche for itself in this daring new crop of pastas. Pickled cherries have been spotted in braised duck pappardelle at Itria, huckleberries in the beet and duck raviolini at Flour + Water, and grapefruit in a lobster tortelloni from the new Market Street fine dining destination Afici. At Villon inside the Proper Hotel, chef Jason Fox just introduced a dish worthy of a Mad Hatter’s dinner party: parsnip cappelletti with celery root, hazelnut, white chocolate crumble, and pomegranate.

“Fruit and pasta have always gone well together — tomato is a fruit!” Fox jokes. The dish was born, according to Fox, through a pure step-by-step experiment that exemplifies the local chef’s unorthodox approach to pasta. Winter moods led to root vegetables, then he added crumble to enhance their nuttiness; the pomegranate adds acidity. “People are used to pineapple and ham pizza, melon and prosciutto,” he says. “We just try to look for and explore those seemingly unusual combinations more.”

And if unusual is the keyword, why not get risque with ginger and fennel pollen like they do at Flour + Water, or add a touch of horseradish to the wagyu tongue ragu fettuccine, per Afici? On some menus, the desire to layer of-the-moment pastas with a crunchy element translates into using hazelnuts, pepitas, walnuts and other uncommon pasta ingredients. The approach, it seems, is to use pasta to celebrate the Bay’s multiculturality and agricultural bounty.

If trendy brassicas and seeds play an exciting role in veggie pasta dishes, then seafood pasta, in the hands of emerging restaurants, has been under the spell of the sea urchin. This past year, it’s been impossible to ignore pasta featuring uni, popping up on menus at Itria, Afici, Sorella, Flour + Water, and Ernest, among others. “Some exciting ingredients here have such good quality and variety, they should be showcased more,” Sorella’s St. Onge says. “So why not on pasta?” St. Onge notes that uni is a great sauce texturizer, adding smoothness and richness.

“At Afici, we don’t necessarily approach our pasta dishes as pastas,” says executive chef Eric Upper. “We are creating a dish that happens to have pasta — our focus is balancing flavors. There is a lot of opportunity to get creative with pasta in the Bay Area, given the wide variety of backgrounds our region’s chefs bring, and the array of high-quality ingredients we have available to us.”

Sea urchin “carbonara” at Ernest
Sea urchin “carbonara” at Ernest
Lauren Saria

St. Onge agrees. “The Bay Area has a lot of Asian influence — we take inspiration from the demographic of our guests as well as our team,” she says. The abundance of black garlic and ginger, miso, and yuzu on local pasta menus showcases her point.

When the Mission institution Flour + Water reopened its doors after a redesign and a menu refresh in early 2022, both the a la carte and the pasta tasting menu came in hot with interesting combinations. “It’s been a 14-year-long evolution,” says co-executive chef and partner Ryan Pollnow. Opening the neighboring and more classically inclined Penny Roma last year allowed for even more freedom. To Pollnow, pasta — “very craveable and comfortable for many people” — is the perfect Trojan horse for creativity. “For us, one foot is always rooted in Italian cooking tradition, and another planted here in the Bay Area, a melting pot of cuisines and cultures,” Pollnow says. “And we want to have a pasta program that takes cues from different styles of cooking and different cultures.”

Which brings us back to miso. Like uni, it’s a great textural upgrade, but it also carries local cultural significance, and it’s had great help from local brands who have made it readily available for Bay Area chefs. At Sorella, it’s Aedan by Mariko Grady, who opened a fermentation kitchen in the Mission last year. Flour + Water and Daytrip use Shared Cultures; Eleana Hsu and Kevin Gondo, who started playing around with miso during the pandemic and soon found themselves supplying to some of the area’s leading restaurants, are the duo behind that business.

To some chefs, miso serves as a bridge between the classic and the new. “If you break it down, miso delivers an incredible amount of umami, and Italian cuisine rarely gets the spotlight it deserves for umami-rich ingredients like sun-roasted tomatoes or Parmigiano-Reggiano,” Pollnow says. “If it makes a dish taste better, and it doesn’t taste too much ‘not from here,’ too far from Italy or Northern California, it’s all fair game.”

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