Japanese Meets Italian at Pasta Ramen in New Jersey

The Montclair restaurant blends ingredients and techniques from two vastly different cuisines

February 10, 2023 8:15 am
Robbie Felice cooking in the kitchen as Pasta Ramen.
Pasta Ramen chef Robbie Felice has set up shop in Montclair.
Jeffrey Elkashab

From soba to udon to ramen, noodles loom large in Japanese cuisine and culture even though history shows those culinary creations actually trace their roots back to China. As it turns out, those aren’t the only foreign-born noodles that have carved out a carby place in Japan, as spaghetti, which started to become mainstream during the post-WWII American occupation of the country because it featured heavily in military food rations, is also a popular dish that is commonly slurped with chopsticks at hole-in-the-wall eateries instead of trattorias.

Wafu spaghetti (wafu directly translates to “Japanese style”) was a staple of Japanese dining by the 1960s and is probably the earliest influence on what is now known as Wafu-Italian cuisine, a style of cooking that blends ingredients, flavors and techniques from Japan and Italy to create umami-rich dishes that are not clearly reminiscent of either country but instead meant to reflect both evenly.

A James Beard Nominated Rising Star Chef who already has a pair of contemporary Italian restaurants in New Jersey, Robbie Felice is hoping to share the Wafu-Italian movement with the masses at his new restaurant Pasta Ramen in Montclair.

Pasta Ramen's temomi ramen shrimp scampi.
Pasta Ramen’s temomi ramen shrimp scampi.
Jeffrey Elkashab

“This isn’t fusion. Wafu-Italian is a loved cuisine in Japan and there are tons of restaurants doing it throughout the country. Italian chefs like to use Japanese ingredients too and do it regularly in Italy. Wafu-Italian is just not very well-known here in the States,” Felice tells InsideHook. “There are no guidelines, but what I always tell people is that if they bite into a dish I made and can’t pinpoint if it’s Japanese or Italian after a pause, that’s Wafu-Italian. That means I did my job correctly. It doesn’t really have to do with how many Italian or Japanese ingredients and techniques you use as long as there’s that confusion about what you’re eating. That’s what Wafu-Italian is to me.”

Opened late last month with partner Luck Sarabhayavanija and billed as the “first-ever Italian ramen shop,” Pasta Ramen started as an invite-only omakase pop-up concept in the Garden State that Felice dreamed up during the pandemic and successfully brought on the road to New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Now at home in a brick-and-mortar location with enough seats for up to 65 guests, Pasta Ramen nods to both its speakeasy-style roots and the streets of Tokyo with dim lighting, red leather booths, graffitied walls and an open kitchen.

The interior of Pasta Ramen in New Jersey.
The interior of Pasta Ramen has some speakeasy vibes.
Jeffrey Elkashab

Featuring unique dishes like chicken katsu ramen, kanpachi crudo and cacio e pepe gyozas, the menu Felice created is eclectic and inspired interested eaters to make more than 2,800 reservations within 24 hours of Pasta Ramen opening its books. “Some dishes will have more Italian ingredients than Japanese ingredients but they’ll have more Japanese techniques or vice-versa,” Felice says. “There might be some dishes that are a little bit more Japanese or a little bit more Italian when you look at them, but there’s always supposed to be that perfect balance when you actually taste them. If you can imagine an Italian ramen shop, that’s basically where you’re going to be coming to dine in Montclair.”

One particular ramen dish Felice is especially excited about serving that’s also a good example of what Wafu-Italian is all about is tonkontsu porchetta. “It’s basically a pork parmesan broth served with porchetta. We marinate pork belly the traditional way and then use a rub like you would with Italian porchetta before braising it,” he says. “You’re going to get super strong flavors of rosemary, garlic, black pepper, fennel and thyme. Then we flavor the broth itself with a little bit more of that rub. The broth itself tastes like a super porky porchetta. It gets topped off with fresh fennel, arugula, yuzu, egg and braised scallions and then we drizzle some of the fat that comes out of the porchetta over the top as well. We have some more dishes that are really out there, but I would say that’s definitely our show-stopping ramen dish. That’s the vibe we’re going for.”

If you’re considering going there to try out Wafu-Italian, note Pasta Ramen is BYOB with no corkage fee. Bellissima.


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