Former Del Posto chef Mark Ladner and partner Nastassia Lopez would like to clarify something about their new restaurant Pasta Flyer: It’s not like other “chef-driven” casual restaurants even though Ladner spent 12 years at one of the most upscale Italian restaurants in the city. It’s not fast-casual, and it’s not for “foodies,” Ladner says. Pasta Flyer, instead, is in the same genre as McDonald’s and Taco Bell. It’s fast food — and that’s what they’re calling it.
Pasta like a spaghetti or fusilli with marinara cost as little as $6 a bowl at Pasta Flyer, which is expected to open next month at 510 Sixth Avenue and may eventually open across the country. At that price, Ladner and Lopez want to bring in the same customers as McDonald’s, while bringing them quality, healthy food with ingredients sourced from the same places as Del Posto, he says.
They’re focusing on opening this first location for now, but in the long run, they want to open in places that fast-casual restaurants aren’t going, like swathes of the Midwest, Lopez says. People have assumed doing mass market dining is a “free money grab,” Ladner says, as if it’s nothing more than a bid to get rich. But he insists it’s also about changing the way people eat.
“It’s compelling to be able to serve inexpensive food and change the culture of how we eat, rather than the elitism of fine dining,” says Ladner. In fine dining, “you’re serving a small amount of people, and they’re generally wealthy. They’re not even necessarily your peers. It’s compelling in a lot of ways; it’s not like free money in the street [to do fast food]. It’s just as hard. It’s different.”
Already, the restaurant has faced some difficulties. Earlier this year, Pasta Flyer was two days from opening when the duo realized they had to scrap the whole thing. They’d taken over a former Chipotle and assumed adopting part of that service-style would work, with some of the cooking happening away from customer view. It did not. Over the course of friends and family, the 250 people who came offered unanimous feedback that they were unsatisfied with the layout: They wanted to see the pasta being made.
Ladner and Lopez cancelled the opening. They broke it to their employees, tore down the finishes, and started from zero again. Some six months later, some of the staff have had to leave, and the space is still under construction. When it does open though, diners will see their pasta being made from start to finish — from the boiling to the sautéing. “By the time you get to the register, the food is ready,” Ladner says. “The whole transaction should take 30 or 40 seconds.”
The revamp made room for some other changes, too. Pasta Flyer will have a second line for online, pick-up, or delivery orders, in an attempt to solve a logistics problem that bigger chains like Starbucks are already facing. The space is small and only seats 30 diners, and he wants to offer the same attention and service to takeout customers as those who dine in.
The menu also has some additions. Lopez used the extra time to find a company in Naples that can make spaghetti and fettuccini using Pasta Flyer’s proprietary process of cooking and freezing the pasta. Those pastas — along with the fusilli, rigatoni, and a gluten-free penne — can be mixed and matched with a variety of sauces, including basil pesto, marinara, and alfredo. A fried lasagna snack has also been added, as well as “PF Meal Deals,” which includes a $9.99 set with spaghetti and meatballs, a side salad, and a fountain drink.
And though it’s a fast-food restaurant, they wanted the interior space to be somewhat nicer than the ones found in a typical fast-food chain. The space itself has a bit of a UFO theme because “Mark’s obsessed with UFOs,” Lopez says. (Ladner protested, saying he just likes “identifying aerial phenomenon.” “I like the idea of shit flying around, and you don’t know what it is,” he says.) A 10-foot satellite dish, purchased at a market in upstate New York, points down from the ceiling of the dining room.
The space-age decor pairs directly with what he’s trying to do with the restaurant. Pasta Flyer mashes up “two conflicting ideologies,” Ladner says: midcentury Italian cooking with the vibe of matriarchal warmth and the “the speed and efficiency and futurism of this UFO.”
“The code we’re ultimately trying to crack is providing food that’s healthful and good quality,” Ladner says, “and it’s also inexpensive, and it’s also really fast.”