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A Room that Prepares and Serves 500 Bowls of Pasta a Day

By Kurt Soller

Chef Robbinsand her bounty of spaghetti, linguine, ziti, corzetti, tagliolini, ravioli, radiatori, tortelli and pappardelle.
 
Max Burkhalter
Chef Robbinsand her bounty of spaghetti, linguine, ziti, corzetti, tagliolini, ravioli, radiatori, tortelli and pappardelle.

Every morning, as the sun arrives, so do they: a handful of employees, taking their spots at two maple benches custom-made by John Boos & Co., the Illinois company revered for its cutting boards. They will stay for around 10 hours, producing whichever pasta the kitchen requests: corzetti, stamped like Roman coins; or cappelletti — little hats — stuffed with mascarpone and spinach. Near one of the 10-foot tables stands a steel extruder; when fitted with various brass dies, it creates the dried shapes (bucatini, rigatoni) that some restaurants purchase by the box. The front table is reserved for fresh pasta: agnolotti, gnocchi and others that involve hand turning. By the time the restaurant’s first guests arrive, dozens of noodles will be drying in the maple-framed racks on the wall, next to a refrigerator where the fresh ones rest.

This is the pasta room, chef Missy Robbins’s temperature- and humidity-controlled workspace, where her staff produces every starch that is served at her new restaurant, Misi, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The menu is limited: 10 pastas and 10 vegetable dishes, served in a cement-tiled space. Between lunch and dinner, Robbins expects to serve 500 bowls of noodles a day, so the 325-square-foot pasta room was designed to meet demand. Set into the restaurant’s front wall, it resembles an Apple store during the iPod era: glass doors, blond-wood details, silent employees. Its shelves are stacked with teal-and-navy-striped bags of Gran Mugnaio, a finely grained flour that she imports from Ravenna, Italy. (At night, the tables scrubbed, the pasta room transforms into a private dining space.)

Max BurkhalterThe open kitchen and dining room at Misi, much of which is devoted to counter seating.
The open kitchen and dining room at Misi, much of which is devoted to counter seating.

Robbins, 47, didn’t intend to become a pasta savant. Though she worked in Emilia-Romagna during her late 20s, she had been focusing on “ ’90s new American cuisine” until she was hired in her early 30s at Spiaggia, a top Italian restaurant in Chicago. Robbins then became the executive chef at New York’s A Voce, where she created monthly tasting menus that highlighted a different Italian region. “As I got more comfortable, I let go,” Robbins says. “You’ll never find mafaldini with pink peppercorns and Parmesan in Italy.” She’s referencing her standout dish from Lilia, her first solo venture, which she opened in 2016 in Williamsburg as a wood-fired Italian restaurant only for it to affirm her reputation as one of the world’s pre-eminent pasta chefs. “I’m able to open a restaurant focused on pasta because we sell so much at the other restaurant,” she says.

Max BurkhalterThe pasta room, through its giant windows.
The pasta room, through its giant windows.

Her pasta room enshrines the spirit of fatto a mano — “made by hand” — that has come to dominate all regional cuisine today but especially Italian, from where the term originates. No ingredient proves the power of the hand quite like pasta: Before it becomes, say, scalloped packets of ravioli, it is merely flour, water and egg. And while other chefs make their own noodles, often in some hidden kitchen corner, Robbins is giving the process a stage. Her laboratory features wall-size windows that front the neighborhood’s new Domino Park, not only to entice wandering diners — like a meat locker might — but also to prove something: We made all of this.

Despite its primacy of place, pasta making is ultimately democratic. As kitchen tasks rank, it’s not especially difficult to learn. Robbins tries to find “pasta people” who can harness the mental over the physical. They must stand all day, yes, but they must also achieve a meditative state, one that allows them to properly fold dozens of identical tortelli as passersby stare: fingers moving, minds wandering. In Misi’s first few months, the sous-chef will make the fillings for stuffed pastas. As the pasta producers develop their own palates, they may take over that task, too. But that doesn’t mean the space is a kind of purgatory. “If I could just stand and do one thing all day,” Robbins says, “I would make pasta.”

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