Jason Cichonski, chef and owner of Ela in Queen Village, is getting into the fast casual game.
Along with partner Justin Lisius, with whom he cooked at fine-dining temple Lacroix, he has launched Little Noodle Pasta Co. Its first Philly location offering made-to-order pasta bowls and pasta by the pound is expected to open by early 2018.
Although it seems like everyone is jumping on the fast casual bandwagon — unsurprising, since it’s the quickest-growing segment of the restaurant industry — pasta is not an easy in. It has been a notoriously tough nut to crack in the quick-service world. In March of this year, Eater went deep on the subject in a story titled “Why it’s so hard to build the Chipotle of pasta.”
But Cichonski said his concept is different. “Everyone is doing dry pasta. We do fresh.”
He’s got a noodle-pudding’s full of proof to back up his claim. A Little Noodle counter has been open and serving in Denver for four months already, inside a gourmet grocery called Mondo Market, and Cichonski says it’s going gangbusters. “More business than we imagined; we were immediately hit.” In addition to build-your-own-bowls at lunch and dinner plus bagged pasta sold retail, the Denver shop has also picked up several wholesale restaurant customers.
Cichonski is actively looking at Philly locations right now, but he’s already got the wholesale business going here, too. Fishtown’s RiverWards Produce stocks Little Noodle on shelves, and has been flying through 50 to 60 pounds every week.
The Denver shop is just a counter because it’s inside another market, Cichonski said, but Philly’s Little Noodle will have seating at tables and a counter. We can expect a menu similar to what’s now offered in Denver.
You start by choosing one of five or so different fresh-extruded pastas — the wet, flexible kind — in various shapes and flavors that change with the seasons. (Recent offerings: mulled wine spice, red pepper, watercress, porcini, balsamic, Old Bay, pumpkin.)
Then choose your sauce — old school red gravy, kale-almond pesto, chile-garlic, aged cheddar, etc. — “load it up” with proteins, veggies and cheeses, all sliced or grated to order over the overflowing bowl, then top with “good stuff” like roasted garlic or crispy capers. The end result is a hearty meal for $7 to $10.
Best-sellers so far have been the “Rigatoni & Sauce” with chicken-garlic meatballs and “Loaded Mac & Cheese,” in which red pepper radiatore is topped with cheese sauce, herbed bread crumbs, arugula and smoked pancetta.
Little Noodle also sells a brilliant new snack that Cichonski invented: puffed pasta.
Sold in bags to munch on and also served at some hotels and restaurants as a bar snack, these better-than-potato-chip bites are made with a special noodle dough that’s extruded, dried, tossed in hot oil, then dusted with various spice mixes. (Tip: You can try them now if you stop into Ela at Third and Bainbridge. Do it.)
So far there are no investors in Little Noodle other than the two partners. “We’ve been thinking about this idea for years,” Cichonski said, “and now it’s time.”
Cichonski started making his mark on the Philly scene on the line at Lacroix and as chef de cuisine at Mica, then owned by Chip Roman, with whom he went on to open Ela (he eventually bought Roman out). He also had a go on “Top Chef,” competing on the same season as Laurel’s Nick Elmi and making a return in the finale to help the latter clinch the crown. Later consulting partnerships at The Gaslight in Old City and 1100 Social have ended, Cichonski said, so it’s the perfect time to start something new.