Review: At Porano Pasta, Gerard Craft Debuts the Fast-Casual Restaurant We've Been Waiting For 

click to enlarge Porano Pasta brings a Chipotle-style assembly line to Italian-influenced food.

PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN

Porano Pasta brings a Chipotle-style assembly line to Italian-influenced food.

At some point before every one of Gerard Craft's restaurant openings, the acclaimed St. Louis chef once confided, he has a moment of panic and thinks no one is going to come. On its face, this seems absurd. Craft has received just about every recognition coveted in the culinary world: Food & Wine's Best New Chef, a James Beard award for Best Chef Midwest, rave reviews from the national media. For Craft to think that his restaurants will go without patrons is the equivalent of the star quarterback thinking he can't get a date to prom.

Digging deeper into Craft's career, however, it makes sense. He's always trying something new — a new city, a new venue, a new concept. It may look easy, but the potential for failure is always there.

At his latest innovation, Porano Pasta, Craft shouldn't have worried. The three-month-old restaurant, located downtown in the MX Building directly across from the brand new National Blues Museum, truly was a risk: the chef's first foray into fast-casual dining, as well as a rethinking of what is possible with this style of restaurant. But once again, Craft and his team have nailed it.

The Porano model is not new — think of Chipotle or Garbanzo or the host of quick-serve pizzerias that have popped up around town in recent months. Like the others, Porano holds to the pick-your-base-protein-sauce format. Far more than the others, though, Craft is pushing the limits of the fast-food industry. Can a restaurant of this style and price point carry locally sourced food? Perhaps one location is easy, but what if you expand to multiple locations in different cities? Then there is the environmental impact. How low can the carbon footprint be at a restaurant that requires disposable packaging? (It seems like a no-brainer: Just use compostable serving dishes and flatware. It turns out, however, that it's not that simple — just ask Craft how difficult it was to get a composting company to take Porano's compostable silverware, and you start to realize how far the industry has to go.)

In this sense, Porano is a testing ground for Craft's vision of the future of fast food, which is ironic considering the restaurant's slow food inspiration. While visiting friends in Porano, Italy, seven years ago, Craft and his family were treated to authentic Italian hospitality — the kind romanticized in travel brochures but seldom actually experienced unless you have the good fortune of staying in someone's home. Craft was impressed with the food, but what really struck him was the feeling he experienced there — the warmth of being surrounded by family. Eating delicious, real food didn't have to be a production, he realized.

For Porano, he tapped Michael Petres, his executive chef at Pastaria, to spearhead the kitchen design and menu development. Not surprisingly, there are a few crossover recipes, but for the most part, the place was created from the ground up.

The restaurant's design is sleek and modern without being cold. The lofted two-story space that used to house Takaya New Asian has been transformed with white subway tiles, light-colored wood tables and an impressive mural that transposes a fluid, orange-hued illustration of Italian-style buildings onto a black and white image of downtown St. Louis. A wooden staircase transports diners to an upstairs space with televisions and a foosball table. To soften the space, potted plants, including miniature olive trees, are placed around the room.

Porano's tagline says, "Deciding is hard. Ordering is Easy." It's an apt description considering that the place offers a seemingly infinite number of base, sauce, protein and topping combinations — all made in-house. (An RFT contributor who did the math concluded there are 99,825 possibilities, but who's counting?)

If you're overwhelmed, they have a few combinations spelled out, like the "Smoky Sunday Sugo," Porano's take on spaghetti and meatballs. Dense, strozzapreti-shaped semolina noodles (each an inch-long twisted s) are smothered in tomato sauce that has been simmered with smoked pork. This is not a meat sauce per se; the hunks of meat are removed before serving, resulting in a smooth tomato sauce infused with pork flavor. Golfball-sized beef meatballs, tender and herbed, sit on top, while a liberal dusting of Grana Padano cheese and piquant house-made giardiniera complete the dish. The smoke from the meat and richness of the pasta, tomato and cheese give this a wonderful hybrid feel, as if nonna decided to get into barbecue.

A boring chicken salad, the staple of country club menus, is anything but at Porano. A romaine and kale base is dressed with zesty red wine vinaigrette and topped with pieces of grilled chicken that are surprisingly juicy for sitting out in a fast-casual assembly line. In place of croutons, herbed breadcrumbs mingle with Grana Padano, adding cheesy crunch to every bite. A garnish of farro (an ancient grain that resembles barley) gives a pleasantly popping texture to the salad. On a second visit, I tried this same combination with the creamy anchovy dressing for an excellent riff on a Caesar.

Craft's suggested Italian rice bowl pairs Arborio rice with sweet red pepper sauce and pork that is so succulent, I found it hard to believe I wasn't at a pig roast. If you get one protein at Porano, this is it.

The spicy tofu is another excellent protein option for vegetarians and omnivores alike. Heed their warning: This is legitimately, nose-runningly spicy. Porano suggests ordering it over the farro, paired with the pumpkin seed and lime pesto. The sauce's subtly sweet, minty flavor gives a welcoming cooling effect.

If you choose to go it alone, however, you can customize these bowls or concoct your own from scratch, an endeavor that could be overwhelming at a place any less organized than Porano. Here, however, things are spelled out pretty clearly in a four-step ordering process. Each corresponding station is manned so that you don't find yourself floundering at the sauces or proteins without guidance. The workers are efficient but not harried. Still, at lunch rush you'd be doing the person in line behind you a favor if you grabbed one of the paper menus at the entrance and came up with a game plan as you waited. It will prevent you from clamming up and having them throw everything but the kitchen sink on your bowl. That's the only way you might have a bad meal here — user error.

In the midst of infinite choices for main courses, you might overlook Porano's other side dishes. Don't. The panzos (hand-held fried breads), which on my visit came stuffed with mozzarella and basil as well as smoked chicken, red peppers and mozzarella, hit a sweet spot between a calzone and a savory doughnut. And the risotto balls — traditional arancini meets mozzarella sticks — are like eating a gooey fried cheese ball. Alone they are magnificent; dipped in the tangy pomodoro sauce, they are the best thing in the restaurant.

Actually, the best thing on the menu may in fact be the Negroni slushy — yes, a frozen slushy that is a Negroni. The drink's traditional bite gets a liberal dose of citrus in this frozen version, making them so dangerously drinkable, you have to stop yourself from downing one after the other.

Craft was worried no one would come to Porano? His real concern should be that no one will leave.

click to enlarge A selection of dishes from Porano Pasta - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
  • PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
  • A selection of dishes from Porano Pasta

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