Don’t mess with Italians when it comes to pasta. You only have to look to the Italian language for evidence of pasta’s pervasive presence in Italian culture. If you want to say “the icing on the cake,” the saying goes “come il cacio sui maccheroni,” translated as “like cheese on macaroni.” Even screen siren Sophia Loren has sung its praises, saying, “Everything you see I owe to pasta.”
Besides the “nonnas,” (grandmothers) one of the staunchest guards of the pasta traditions is Academia Barilla, a culinary institute founded by the Barilla company. It’s not unusual for Italian restaurants to create their own products for sale. But it’s not every day a popular food brand launches its own restaurant chain. That’s what Barilla has done—and not in its native Italy, as one might expect, but right in the heart of Manhattan.
Pasta is serious business at Barilla Restaurants. On the restaurant wall hangs an enormous black-and-white photo, superimposed with the question, in graffiti-like font: “Di che pasta sei fatto?” Literally, it means “What pasta are you made of?” but it really means, “What stuff are you made of?”
Barilla is a giant in the pasta world. Founded in 1877 in Parma, Italy, and now led by brothers Guido, Luca, and Paolo Barilla (of the fourth generation), the company lends a helping hand to a lot of hungry eaters around the world. Barilla now distributes products in over 100 countries and is the most-consumed pasta in the United States.
Many might recall as small children the dark blue boxes of Barilla spaghetti coming to the rescue at dinnertime—add some tomato sauce and grated Parmesan, and dinner is done—a mercy to harried working parents, and a delight to hungry children who love nothing better than the comfort of pasta (well, besides the sweet promise of dessert afterward).
Speaking of spaghetti, Barilla makes over 90,000 miles of the slender strings a year—enough to go around the Earth four times.
Barilla has now set its sights on the restaurant universe, with locations across from Bryant Park (which opened this spring) and on 52nd Street in Midtown East. A third location in Herald Square is in the works.
On weekdays, when the clock is close to striking noon, throngs of workers and tourists flock to the eateries. Unfailingly, lilting sounds of Italian can be heard among the crowd—Italians of all ages who no doubt miss the food from home.
Regional specialties of Italy are reflected throughout the menu: Tagliatelle Bolognese from Emilia-Romagna ($10.95), or Farfalle Genovesi from Liguria ($9.50), for example—recipes all developed by the company’s culinary institute.
There are a few nods to American preferences, such as Spaghetti e Polpettine ($10.50), in a delicious tomato-basil sauce with meatballs, or to modern sensibilities, like a quinoa salad with a light lemon dressing ($9.95).
Fast and Delicious
The whole idea behind pasta is that it’s quick to make, although you wouldn’t know it from the wait at some Italian restaurants. But at the fast-casual Barilla Restaurants the speed is unbelievable—diners come in, place their orders at either of two lines, and sit down at their tables with a number. In the vast majority of cases, the dish is brought over to them in less than five minutes.
The result: delicious dishes with an oh-so-comforting, home-like quality—seasoned just so, with a mercifully light hand. The ingredients are strikingly few in each dish—in most cases no more than a handful, from the classic Spaghetti al Pomodoro ($8.95) with crushed tomato sauce and fresh basil to Linguine Mare Blue, with shrimp, zucchini, and extra-virgin olive oil ($12.50).
But the simplicity is the genius of Italian cuisine. When you have high-quality ingredients, they speak for themselves—for example, sweet tomatoes, fragrant fresh herbs, extra virgin olive oil, and pasta perfected over almost 140 years.
The staff is dressed in soccer-inspired jerseys, the backs of which might say “Spaghetti 5” or “Linguine 13” (the different Barilla pasta cuts are numbered)—a clever way of bringing together two of Italy’s loves. And like “fútbol” players, the staff is quick. They are charged with bringing dishes to your tables when ready and clearing the table. They are not waiters, hence no tipping.
Alfonso Sanna, the executive chef of Barilla Restaurants, has cooked for 30 years—15 years apiece in Italy and the United States. He too is adept at the speed game. He astutely puts together recipes that can be assembled in a flash. The “ragù” in the Tagliatelle Bolognese takes no less than four hours to prepare—with vegetables and beef first cooked separately before a long simmer together—but the dish itself arrives piping hot on your table five minutes after you order, full of layered flavors that only time can impart.
The menu features not only pasta dishes, but also paninis, pizzas, and salads.
A machine thoroughly heats up paninis to a golden crunch in one minute. Among the mouthwatering options is the Ciabatta San Siro ($9.95, Italian sausage, roasted bell peppers, caramelized onions, and tomato sauce—someone clearly loves the beautiful sport: San Siro is the name of the stadium in Milan). And don’t overlook the Focaccia Caprese, which displays the colors of the Italian flag ($9.50, with mozzarella di bufala, tomatoes, and homemade pesto Genovese).
Attention is also given to the desserts, from a deliciously creamy tiramisu to “panna cotta” ($5.50 for either).
The ambiance is lively and inviting, with wood and warm colors predominating. And the loveliest of touches is a vertical wall of fresh growing herbs—including fragrant basil, oregano, and mint—that the chef uses in the dishes.
Every Barilla Restaurants establishment also features a “mercato” (market) where shoppers can pick up staples like its namesake pasta, made with bronze die (making its surface more clingy for sauces). There are several kinds of olive oils—from more delicate bottles of Ligurian olive oil (delicately wrapped in foil to preserve it) to a grassier, spicy Tuscan oils.
A long communal table graces the center of the dining room, lending a social, family-like feel.
Founder Pietro Barilla might have envisioned this setting four generations back. He believed ardently in producing the best pasta he could, saying, “Feed people as you would feed your own children.”
Get everything from pizzas, pastas, salads, to desserts through its handy online ordering platform. For ultimate convenience, Barilla offers delivery and pickup through its website, as well as catering.
1290 Avenues of the Americas (at 52nd Street)
Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–10 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday 9 a.m.–10 p.m.
Bryant Park location:
1065 Avenue of the Americas (at 40th Street, across from Bryant Park)
Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–11 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday 9 a.m.–11 p.m.