OPENING A RESTAURANT doesn’t require a Ph.D. or an MBA, but maybe it helps. It probably also doesn’t hurt that Davide Macchi and Filippo Fiori, the due amici behind Dué Cucina Italiana, were born and raised in Tuscany.
Their casual Capitol Hill “pasta lab” debuted in 2016 as Dueminuti (two minutes, the length of time it takes fresh pasta to cook). By the end of last year, they’d refined the model and re-christened the restaurant Dué Cucina. The menu embraces bruschetta, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana and tiramisu — all worth trying — but pasta is central to the concept.
Customers pick a sauce and pair it with the pasta of their choice. The 10 sauces typically range from traditional (Bolognese, Cacio e Pepe, Amatriciana) to contemporary (kale pesto, smoked salmon with crème fraîche). The pasta, extruded daily in several shapes, falls into four categories: classic, made with and without eggs; gluten-free; and “healthy,” made with a dough they developed that contains 50% more protein (from lupin bean flour) and more fiber, and has a lower glycemic index than the classic pasta. “You can eat it for lunch and not fall asleep back at the office,” Fiori says.
Macchi and Fiori have been friends since they rode the bus together from their respective small Tuscan towns to the regional high school. They went their separate ways to universities, in Pisa and Bologna, and got their first taste of restaurant life — and independence — working summer jobs as waiters in London after their freshman year. “It made us very international-minded,” says Macchi.
After university, they were seldom on the same continent at the same time. Graduate studies took Fiori to Canada, then China, where he met his Malaysia-born wife and completed a Ph.D. in nuclear science and technology at Tsinghua University. While there, he taught Italian cooking classes and appeared regularly on a TV cooking show. Macchi went on to the University of California at Berkley and traveled the globe pursuing a career in the tech sector before earning an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
The two friends’ paths converged again in Cambridge. After a cancer diagnosis disrupted Fiori’s life, and his father developed a gluten intolerance that prohibited him from eating pasta, food — always a passion — became Fiori and Macchi’s career focus. Aided by award and grant programs for entrepreneurs at MIT, they experimented with formulas for healthier pastas and fine-tuned their business model.
Where to set up shop was, not surprisingly, a very data-driven decision. “We could have gone anywhere,” says Macchi. They looked at the cost of living and the affordability of a startup. Family-friendliness, lifestyle, geographic beauty, even weather went into the equation. Seattle easily beat out Boston, New York and San Francisco.
Access to fresh, high-quality ingredients was an important consideration. Illustrating that commitment are the rows of basil plants basking under grow lights in a corner of the cheerful Broadway storefront the owners renovated themselves. They cure their own guanciale, and grind beef chuck in-house to get the texture they want for their Bolognese sauce. They buy organic meat, wild and sustainably caught salmon, eggs laid by pastured hens and five different pecorino cheeses.
Like the lupin bean flour and Shepherd’s Grain wheat flour used to make the pasta, these are costly ingredients. They keep prices affordable — from $8.80 to $12.20 for a bowl of pasta — through smart ordering and other operating efficiencies. Executive chef Fiori says, “In the end, it will pay off because people will taste the difference. They may not know what it is, but they will come back.”
It is paying off. Their daily production has outgrown three pasta machines. After test-driving a fourth, Fiori dispatched an email to the Italian manufacturer, requesting a long list of adjustments. “It’s so well-made, so well handcrafted, but the guy who designed it never used it in real life,” he says.
Precision and process get scrutiny in every facet of their business. Because textures vary among the types of cooked pasta, they devised an “aldenteness” scale for the menu, indicating what level of firmness to expect. They created staff training software to reduce workplace stress, and improved physical conditions in the kitchen, installing exhaust fans and a window to reduce heat and humidity. “Some might say, ‘It’s a kitchen; what do you expect?’ ” says Fiori. “By making a better working environment, people stay longer.”
The two friends are in it for the long haul. CEO Macchi, who worked at Amazon to help finance the startup, says they are eyeing a second location, on the Eastside. “We want to make this work, so we don’t have to go back to corporate life.”
Dué Cucina’s Cacio e Pepe
Executive chef Filippo Fiori calls this recipe “foolproof.” The simple Roman dish dates back thousands of years. The name means “cheese and pepper,” the key ingredients. The quality is crucial. At the restaurant, they use a combination of Pecorino Romano DOP aged for 18 months, Parmigiano-Reggiano aged for 36 months and two kind of peppercorns. The resulting flavor is anything but simple.
• 6¼ ounces (180 grams) Pecorino Romano DOP 18 months, finely grated
• 2¾ ounces (80 grams) Parmigiano-Reggiano 36 months, finely grated
• 1/8 ounce (3 grams) black Tellicherry peppercorns
• 1/8 ounce (3 grams) white Sarawak peppercorns
• 1 cup (210 grams) water, room temperature
• 1 pound (400 grams) paccheri, tonnarelli or bucatini pasta
1. Place the peppercorns in a skillet, and toast on high flame until fragrant. Cool and grind to medium coarseness.
2. Put the two cheeses in a tall container, and add 4/5ths of the ground peppers.
3. Add the water to the cheese and pepper mixture. Using an immersion blender at full speed, mix until creamy, about 10 minutes. (At first it will look like a dry mess, but the proteins in the cheese will break down, and a nice creaminess free of lumps will develop.)
4. Boil the pasta in at least 5 quarts of salted water for 1 minute less than the time recommended on the package.
5. When the pasta is almost ready, warm up a pan large enough to hold all the pasta. Add the sauce. Do not cook the sauce, or the cheese will become stringy.
6. When the pasta is still al dente, drain well, and place in the skillet with the sauce. Toss the pasta and sauce together, moving the skillet on and off the fire, until nice and creamy. It is crucial to not cook or melt the cheese.
Serve on warm plates, and top with the remaining pepper.