Baked pastas perfect in-house and for catering
We are in a segment of the foodservice industry that is specialized. Each operator truly refines their craft and what they offer to attract the best client base hoping for a rapid rate of return. It’s interesting to think back to my very first business I opened in 1993. I called it Chef Jeff’s Gourmet Express. It was a tiny little space built inside of a small mall in Laconia, New Hampshire, on the outside wall of a department store. Although our space was about 1,000 square feet with 20 café seats, we had a pretty large menu. We offered freshly baked goods including cinnamon buns, Danish, muffins and cookies as well as sandwiches, soup, soft-serve ice cream and small gourmet pizza. We worked our tails off every day in a very tiny prep space, but I remember it being a struggle to keep up with all the offerings. The mall company apparently broke a non-compete with another restaurant in the mall so after a year of being there, they bought me out of my lease, which worked out fine for us. After a short time, they allowed a pretzel shop to go in, and it was amazing to me to see how incredibly well they did by making just one item –– pretzels! Wow, that was a real opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. It’s not always about making sure there is something on the menu for everybody in the world, but finding things that you can do better than anybody and honing in on what sells best!
Some restaurants’ menus are simply too huge, and it makes me wonder how fresh everything can really be when they’ve got so many offerings on their menu.
There is definitely a way to offer a nice-sized menu if you feel that is necessary to truly compete for your market share without having an out-of-control inventory. Utilizing ingredients that are already part of your inventory to create new menu items is the best way to use them again for creating new specialties. Let me give you an example. When I first purchased my three pizza shops in Massachusetts in 1998, I wanted to take my company a little to the gourmet side without alienating my existing customer base. I designed that idea to simply grow upon what we already had. I knew artichoke hearts was an ingredient that I wanted to add for a new pizza I created, but I realized we wouldn’t use enough before the rest would spoil. That’s why I incorporated them into a couple other categories on my menu including salad and appetizers.
Pasta is a natural shoo-in as a complement to our pizza, sandwich and salad options. I see a lot of operators who have added spaghetti with tomato sauce and even offer a meatball or sausage to accompany that dish. If you already offer some basic baked pasta options, let’s take them up to the next level. I’ve taken a peek into many of your restaurants just before I wrote this and noticed one common ingredient that you all have in house already: cheese! Glorious cheese! So I want us to look at some baked pasta possibilities.
You know baked ziti is pretty common and very popular and can be made more than likely with things that are already part of your current inventory. Incorporate some marinara with a touch of ricotta cheese and cook ziti pasta. Top the dish with cheese and bake until the cheese becomes lightly golden brown. From there, you can add anything ranging from Italian sausage to chorizo and Mexican spices.
I created a dish that has become a monster success with my customers –– a baked ziti florentine. I make this one to order. I dip 7 ounces of precooked (al dente) ziti in boiling water for about 30 seconds and then toss it with: 6 ounces of Alfredo sauce; 1½ ounces fresh spinach leaves and 2 ounces of cooked Italian sausage coins.
I put this in a large casserole dish or a to go round aluminum tin, top it with 2½ ounces of our pizza cheese (50-percent mozzarella and 50-percent provolone) and bake it for a few minutes until the cheese becomes lightly golden on top.
Let’s talk about lasagna for a moment. It is true that lasagna is a little time consuming to make and sometimes difficult to manage regarding how much to have hot and ready to serve, and I find that many operators avoid offering it at all because of the complexity of the serving process.
I want you to consider offering a variety of lasagnas and think about making them to order in the form of a lasagna roll up. Have some lasagna noodles pre-cooked and ready to stuff. You have a lasagna cheese filling already mixed up and you can use all of your pizza toppings as add-in options. You’ll want to toss the ingredients on the hot grill for just a couple of minutes while you get your noodles, cheese and sauce ready to assemble. Incorporate your fillings onto the flat noodle that you have topped with your lasagna cheese mixture. Simply roll the noodle up and bake for about the time it takes to bake a pizza, and you’ve got a whole new innovative product available for your customers to try.
Here’s a good lasagna cheese filling:
3 pounds of smooth whipped ricotta
2 cups of pizza cheese
1 cup Parmesan
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
Mix all ingredients.
One of the great things about adding baked pasta to your menu is that they convert perfectly as catering menu items. Pair one or two baked pastas with a garden salad, some fresh breadsticks or garlic bread and you’ve got an amazing catering menu to offer your business customers. Get started!
Jeffrey Freehof owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and International Pizza Expo.