Pasta’s leap to whole-wheat

According to The Whole Grains Council, a San Diego-based, nonprofi t, consumer advocacy group that tracks dining trends, nearly 10 times as many new whole grain products were introduced in 2006 as in the year 2000. An A.C. Nielsen study further reported a 20% increase in the sale of whole-wheat pasta last year over 2006. Pizzeria operators have taken notice, and one, Uno Chicago Grill (www.unos.com), has recently garnered the No.1 spot on Health magazine’s list of healthiest chain restaurants for its multi-grain pastas, lower-calorie flatbread pizzas and gluten-free options.

Mama’s Café Baci, Hackettstown, NJ

Tom Schiano has been in the pizza business for 38 years and currently owns Mama’s Café Baci in Hackettstown, New Jersey (www.mamascafebaci.com). His restaurant has slowly added gluten-free and low carb items over the years and Schiano says his business has taken a unique tact in converting patrons to healthy options such as whole-wheat pasta. 

“Fads come and go,” he says. “We’ve just taken foods that our customers enjoy such as pizza and eggplant, and prepare them in a healthier way, with a whole-wheat crust on the pizza, or by preparing the eggplant without batter. Any dish or food can be healthy if it’s prepared with that in mind. We call it ‘smart eating.’” 

“The average individual wants to eat smart, and they want to eat healthy. At the same time, when you go out to eat at a restaurant, you don’t want your food to be boring. As restaurateurs, it’s our challenge to create dishes that are healthy but also fun and tasty.” That key word, “tasty,” has been lacking, at times, in whole-wheat pasta. Customers have been known to complain that whole-wheat pasta can have a, well, grainy taste, if the texture of the noodles is coarse. “There are little tricks you can use to offset that,” Schiano points out. “Try mixing some whole wheat with regular pasta and increase your vegetables and sauce. You can also look for different shapes instead of spaghetti; sometimes penne or fusilli have a better texture.” The good news is, pasta manufacturers have been working hard to improve the taste and texture of whole-wheat pasta over the past several years and have made great strides. 

Healthier dishes can cost more due to ingredients and take longer to prepare, but Schiano says his customers are unfazed. “Yes, premium ingredients tend to cost more,” he acknowledges, “but consumers are used to that.

For Schiano, the health trend is only the tip of the iceberg lettuce. “Our customers have been asking for organic items, so I think our next step in the healthy eating area will be to offer organic salads,” he says. While encouraging the health trend, Schiano also encourages operators to keep one simple dictum in mind. “Make it healthy, but keep it fun and never boring.”

Village Pizzeria and Ristorante, East Galway, NY

Whole-wheat pasta has made its way onto the extensive menu at the Village Pizzeria and Ristorante in East Galway, New York (www.villagepizzeria.com), and owner Sandy Foster is proud of one dish in particular. “Our Penne Tuscano is made with whole-wheat pasta and tossed with roasted fennel, spinach, tomatoes, goat cheese, extra virgin olive oil and basil. I came up with the dish myself one day just playing around with ingredients in the kitchen,” she recalls. 

There’s something else on the menu that Foster is not necessarily proud of but concedes is necessary. “We charge two dollars extra for any whole-wheat pasta dish,” she says. “We make all of our pasta ourselves and it is very labor intensive. The whole-wheat costs more and takes longer to prepare, so we add the extra charge.” Foster says the added price hasn’t hampered sales. 

“Whole-wheat has definitely come into its own over the last couple of years,” reports this 20-year food industry veteran. “It’s an acquired taste for some people but we’re selling more and more of it. The healthy eating trend is part of it, but you also have some people who order it because their doctors have recommended it to benefit their heart or blood sugar.”

Foster says she’s noticed that whole-wheat pasta tends to sell more during the spring and summer months. “I guess people try to eat healthier during warm weather; maybe they’re worried about fitting into their bathing suits,” she says with a laugh.