Everyone loves pasta - which is why few menus should be without at least one pasta dish. And there's an increasing number of different pastas and good-quality sauces to put with them.
Authenticity of flavour is top of the agenda for John Marriage, who runs the Surprise pub in Edgware, Middlesex. The Surprise caters to a lunchtime trade of which about five customers will want pasta dishes. Marriage uses the Knorr Collezione Italiana range of frozen sauces, such as Pesto, Florentina and Quattro Formaggi, and filled pastas, including mushroom ravioli and pasta filled with Parma ham.
"The sauces have an authentic Italian taste to them, which is important," says Marriage. "The pesto sauce is a good example. It is a real pesto, with pine nuts that you can actually see. It has a good, full flavour." Another advantage is that the sauces are supplied frozen in single-portion pouches, making portion control easy and reducing waste.
Consistency is another quality Marriage wants, and he feels that products have greatly improved in this area in the past 10 years. "I need to know that if I'm not around and someone else is cooking, the dishes will taste the same," he says.
Tastes among customers at the Pickwick in Sheffield are more traditional, says owner and chef Tim Bentley, with spaghetti bolognese and lasagne vying for the title of most popular pasta dish. But authenticity is still an issue for Bentley, who believes his customers are becoming more adventurous the more they travel. Dolmio Tomato and Basil sauce, supplied in 2.5kg tubs, forms the basis of the pasta dishes offered in the Pickwick's 70-seat dining area and 300-seat function room, with ingredients such as grilled chicken, pepper, onions and garlic added. "We stick to the basic tomato and basil sauce, because it's easy to adapt," says Bentley, who makes up sauces in quantities of 50 portions at a time.
Gate Gourmet, which supplies in-flight meals, is well aware of the growing demand for authenticity from much-travelled diners. "People know what they want and what it should taste like," says executive chef David Walklate. "A lot of passengers, particularly in first and club class, are well travelled and used to the real thing."
Pasta features on several British Airways menus within first, club and economy classes, accounting for more than 500 covers per day. The first-class menu may include an open lasagne with mushrooms and asparagus with a saffron, basil and tomato dressing, while a pasta bar serves penne pasta with a choice of sauces, including tomato, artichoke and smoked paprika; mushroom, roasted garlic and thyme; tomato, olive and chilli; and creamy mushroom, tomato and basil.
In club class, pasta dishes include four-cheese ravioli served with a selection of sauces, including creamy pesto. Also on offer is tomato, basil and mozzarella sauce with ravioli.
Economy-class passengers can choose penne with chicken in a cheese sauce with broccoli, and as a vegetarian choice there is penne with creamy cheese sauce and broccoli.
Fresh pasta for the Gate Gourmet dishes is bought in, but all sauces are made on the premises using a chopped tomato base. "Sauces are light rather than heavy, b‚chamel-based sauces," says Walklate, adding that penne is the preferred pasta because it is "easy to fork".
Greater awareness of regional Italian food among caterers and their customers has led to an explosion of more adventurous products coming on to the market. Specialist Mediterranean ingredient supplier IB Food produces 34 ambient sauces made, it says, to authentic recipes, using local seasonal produce and for serving with pasta or with meat, cheese or vegetables.
"It is extremely important that a sauce tastes and looks like the chef has made it himself," says Isabella Gambuzzi, managing director of IB Food. "The chef can be creative with our sauces, using them as a base to which other ingredients can be added."
Seven pasta sauces - Arrabbiata, Bolognese, Carbonara, Four Cheese, Spinach and Cheese, Sweet Pepper, Tomato and Mascarpone, and Tomato and Basil - make up the frozen range available from Macphie, and the emphasis is on capturing the authentic flavours of the Mediterranean. The sauces are ready to serve and can be used with fresh or dried pasta. Five out of the seven are suitable for vegetarians.
Irene Zia, category manager for Nestl‚ Food Services, says its Maggi Tomato Coulis is one of the company's most successful catering products and is adapted by chefs to their own requirements. "Tomato is still the most popular type of pasta sauce," she says. "However, chefs are using it more frequently as a base to which they can add other ingredients and experiment with different fusions of flavour."
With up to 2,500 diners a day passing through, choice, more than authenticity of flavour is the main priority in the student and staff restaurant at the London School of Economics. "We offer two varieties of pasta every day with four sauces - two red and two white," says manager Lesley Causley. "I wouldn't describe them all as authentically Italian-tasting. We cater for a wide mix of ethnic students so need to appeal to a wide cross section of tastes. We've been known to use Thai vegetables in our pasta sauces."
The pasta is portion controlled and served to the customer in a bowl. Customers can then choose their own sauce and add fresh herbs, Parmesan and cracked black pepper. Sauces are prepared from scratch from a base of tinned tomatoes, and recipes include classic tomato with olives and mixed herbs, and tomato with sliced pepperoni.
Tomato-based varieties tend to be the most popular choices at the school, which confirms statistics from AC Nielsen showing that tomato-based sauces have a 26% share of the market in terms of value and account for a 44% share in restaurants.
Our top three flavours
- Quattro formaggi
Cirio Del Monte 0845 6023320
020 7708 8000
020 8686 3333
UBF Foodsolutions (Knorr)
Universe Foodservice (Sacla')
- Well known in the retail market, Sacla' pesto sauce has been launched into food service in 1.2-litre plastic jars. There are two varieties: pesto alla Genovese, made with basil, grana padano cheese, olive oil and crushed pine kernels; and pesto rosso, which includes the same ingredients plus vine-ripened tomatoes. The sauces have a two-week chilled shelf life and can be frozen.
- Tomato products from Cirio del Monte, including a paste, passata and chopped tomatoes, all suitable as a base for pasta sauces, were repackaged into 3kg foil bags for the food service market earlier this year.