Had Enough Of Trendy Pasta? There's More To Come
Copyright 1994 The Chicago Tribune
Distributed By Knight-Ridder Newspapers/Tribune Information Services
By Barbara Sullivan
Item: On any given day, customers at Fresh Fields grocery stores across the country have
a choice of 35 to 40 varieties of fresh pasta, ranging in flavor from squid ink to garlic
parsley. If none of those is suitable, special orders can be made from a list of a whopping
208 pasta varieties.
Item: The average American consumer ate 18.4 pounds of pasta in 1990, up from 12.9
pounds in 1982. The National Restaurant Association estimates that by the year 2000
we'll be eating 30.6 pounds.
Is there no end to pasta mania? Will we ever get our fill of fettuccine with pesto,
ricotta-stuffed ravioli, linguine in clam sauce or just plain spaghetti and meatballs? Is
there a saturation point, when we finally say basta (enough already)?
Not anytime soon, according to the folks who track America's eating habits and also
(not surprisingly) those who market Italian foods. A study last year by the NPD Group
Inc., a Chicago research firm, shows that pasta ranks second among the top five growth
foods in the last five years. The study tracked eating habits of 2,000 households over five
years, and compared 65 foods and beverages to determine which have grown fastest in
consumption. Soft drinks led the list, followed by pasta, chips, turkey sandwiches and
Consumers cited two main reasons for their enchantment with noodles: Pasta is easy
to fix and it's healthful. Digging into a bowl of complex carbohydrates is good for the
body (unless, of course, those noodles are covered with such less-than-healthful but
delectable items as cream, prosciutto and/or Gorgonzola).
``Not only is it convenient to prepare, but it is considered quite good for you,'' said
Harry Balzer, NPD vice president when he presented the five-year study last April in
And a Gallup survey last May of more than 1,000 grocery shoppers found that 52
percent said they were eating more pasta than in the previous year. In that same poll 92
percent said pasta was ``convenient''; 93 percent said it was good for them.
``I love it, I try to eat it at least three times a week,'' says Sharon Stilwell, manager
consultant for Relcon Inc. in Oak Brook, Ill. ``It's a food that instantly rejuvenates me.
When I'm at home, I fix it simply, with just a little olive oil and Parmesan cheese.
Maybe I'll add chicken if I have leftovers. When I eat out, I'll be more extravagant
although I try to stay away from heavier sauces.''
Italian restaurants continue to proliferate. It's the No. 1 ethnic category in the United
States, according to the National Restaurant Association. Excluding pizza places, Italian
restaurants increased 135 percent between 1985 and 1993, from 4,438 to 10,435, according
to the Restaurant Consulting Group in Evanston, Ill. This compares to an increase of
only 12 percent for all restaurants during the same time period.
``Oriental and Mexican restaurants still head the list (in numbers of ethnic
restaurants), but Italian restaurants are increasing more rapidly,'' says Millie Lemajich,
director of information services for the Evanston group.
Nationally, the ubiquitous Olive Garden chain, which started with two restaurants in
1982 in Orlando, now has 432 and is averaging 50 openings a year. A new kid on the
block is Macaroni Grill (owned by Brinker International of San Antonio, owner of the
Chili's restaurant chain), which has 27 outlets nationally.
``We opened June 2, and we were having two-hour waits right away,'' said David
Hyre, general manager of the Wheaton, Ill., restaurant, which offers a variety of pastas
and sauces. ``We did research before we came here, but business is better than we ever
One reason the love affair with pasta should continue is its vast variety--spaghetti
and meatballs will forever be dear in American hearts, but pasta lovers today have an
Macaroni and cheese becomes penne con cinque formaggi (tube pasta with five
Spaghetti with red sauce can be tagliatelle al ragu (ribbon pasta with meat sauce).
``It's a food that people are familiar with, but at the same time, customers are
becoming so aware of the different kinds of pastas, of all the different shapes and the
way pastas can be prepared,'' says Paul LoDuca, chef/owner of Vinci, and the new Italian
seafood restaurant Mare in Chicago. ``Between both restaurants, we're serving 18 or 19
types of pasta.''
Jonathan Fox, executive chef of Maggiano's Little Italy in Chicago, refers to some of
the unusual shapes as ``designer pastas.''
``For example, radiators (radiatori, which resemble little heaters), and little Christmas
tree (shaped) pastas; there are a lot of interesting shapes. But pasta is pasta, and more
important than shape is how it's prepared.''
Cathie Weinberg, media communications manager for the Olive Garden chain, also
reports a large increase in pasta varieties and toppings in the last decade.
``We've seen tremendous changes. We're adding ingredients we didn't offer before,
like capers, chopped olives, sliced peppers. There's so much of a variety that I don't see
the market becoming saturated for a long time. There's room for lots of restaurants.''
Macaroni Grill pushes the envelope when it comes to offering new and different
pasta dishes. One of its biggest sellers, according to manager Hyre, is fried pasta; he calls
it ``an Italian nacho.''
Value is another attraction. Ninety six percent of the shoppers surveyed in last year's
Gallup poll said they liked the cost. When it comes to eating out, a bowl of pasta is
certainly cheaper than a steak or most French food. And portions often are staggeringly
So what's the forecast? The answer is clear--pasta power is here to stay.