How Much Should Pasta Cost?

A pasta entree at a restaurant can set you back $30. How did we get here?

Earlier this year, in the process of covering the rising price of sandwiches, I gained some insight into the overhead costs, margins, and business tactics at play in the Los Angeles sandwich scene. Now, I'd like to talk about something far more costly: a dish of restaurant pasta.

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I often hear people complain about the price of pasta. Personally, I try not to spend more than $25 on a pasta dish when I'm dining out, but that limit has become increasingly impossible to set—especially in Los Angeles, where good pasta comes at a premium. It's a problem that started at fine dining restaurants, but has since spread to the middling, checkered-tablecloth Italian joints, too. At what point is the art of handmade pasta pricing out regular people who wish to enjoy some linguine?

An overview of expensive pasta

At the illustrious Funke in Beverly Hills, chef Evan Funke charges $50 for agnolotti and $48 for a tagliatelle bolognese. His other restaurant, Mother Wolf, prices the puttanesca at $32. Evan is one of the best pasta makers in the world, but few people would typically associate such menu prices with anything that doesn't involve steak.

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Over on West Adams, closer to Culver City, Cento Pasta Bar charges $26 for its flagship beet spaghetti. It boasts a vibrant color and it's capably made, but it's still spaghetti; with tip, this amounts to $30 for one pasta dish that isn't meant to be shared. And I absolutely love the pasta at Union in Pasadena, where the traditional cacio e pepe costs $22. Maybe you're like me and thinking, There are only two ingredients in cacio e pepe, and one of them is pepper. The spaghetti and meatballs at Union, meanwhile, cost $32.

The price of pasta hasn't just raised eyebrows in coastal cities. Look at this menu for Joseph Tambellini's in Pittsburgh, where you'll spend $34 on aglio e olio (spaghetti with garlic and olive oil) and $39 for rigatoni with sausage. And at La Dolce Vita in Detroit (every city has a restaurant named La Dolce Vita), the linguine vongole costs $39. The penne alla norma is $24. Having worked in restaurants, I know that eggplant and ricotta salata are not particularly expensive ingredients.

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So, just what the hell is going on here? Why is pasta everywhere so expensive?

Why pasta is so expensive

You can rule out eggs as the culprit, because the price of eggs has stabilized since this past spring.

"If they say eggs, they're lying," says Francesco Lucatorto, a native of Liguria and the co-owner of Ceci's Gastronomia in Silverlake. "For us, organic brown eggs were $35 a case, then they went to $120, then they came down again."

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Lots of egg yolks, though, can contribute somewhat to the price of pasta. Yolks add richness to pasta dough by way of fat, which brings an unmatched smoothness and silkiness; it's what makes pappardelle so damn luxurious. It certainly costs more to make pasta with eggs and white flour than straight semolina and water, but the decadence of egg yolks makes restaurants' house-made pasta sing.

Good ingredients cost money, naturally. But even then, the quantities of these ingredients are so low in each individual pasta dish that they're not the sole reason for the markup.

In fact, pasta prices are high almost entirely due to labor costs, which have skyrocketed in recent years. "Labor cost went up 70% in five years, and this is something nobody talks about," says Lucatorto. "A line cook was making $16 or $17 an hour in 2018. Now, a dishwasher starts at that rate."

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The National Restaurant Association has data to support this claim:

"More than 15 million people choose to work in restaurants, many of them professionals who have built strong, long-term careers. In recent years, the market demand for both experienced and entry-level restaurant workers has pushed their average earnings from $15.06 in May 2019 to $19.67 in May 2023 – a 31% percentage point growth, compared to 20% in overall private sector.

Labor cost arguably weighs even heavier on a restaurants that primarily serve pasta, because pasta is majorly labor intensive, plain and simple.

"To make a kilo of tortelloni, it takes two hours to cook the meats, 30 minutes to knead dough, an hour to stretch, an hour to fill," Lucatorto explains, "Then there's storage, cooking—the labor is the factor for pasta production."

And while it feels like a cop-out to say restaurants charge so much for pasta "simply because they can," there's actually some truth to that, too. In the United States, we consider pasta a luxury item, and we want all the trappings that come along with that, even if it means a higher price tag.

"In L.A., you pay for a show," says Lucatorto. "Chandeliers. Pink leather couches. The fancy environment. Outstanding service. [Restaurants] know they can charge you $10 more for homemade."

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It's a reputation that, here in America at least, has been unfairly limited to Italian cuisine for too long. Samuel Oh, owner of Ham Hung in Koreatown, lamented as far back as 2019 that he just can't charge $20 for his bibim-naengmyeon in the same way that restaurants can charge $20 for a plate of pasta.

How restaurants can keep pasta prices low

Even in Los Angeles, you don't have to resign yourself to bank-breaking pasta. There are fantastic and affordable options if you know where to look.

Ceci's charges between $16-$17 for its lasagna, which is filling, flavorful, and expertly made. Most dishes at Sunday Gravy also hover around the $15 mark and provide enough pasta for a full meal. These two restaurants are a steal in the modern Los Angeles pasta scene, and they don't sacrifice quality to achieve that price point. How is this possible?

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For starters, Lucatorto operates Ceci's as a takeout restaurant. The lasagna comes in a square of aluminum foil, which "costs four cents," and everything is served up in to-go containers. No plates. No dishwasher. He prepares all of his food in bulk and works 60-70 hours a week. "I can't wait to sell lasagna for $22," he laments.

He cites Uovo as the best pasta in Los Angeles for its price point. The bolognese at is $18, the carbonara is $18, and the cacio e pepe is $18. How? The pasta itself is made in bulk in Bologna, Italy, then shipped over to multiple Uovo locations across LA ("Nothing happens to pasta when you freeze it," Lucatorto tells me). By making the pasta off-site with Italian ingredients, Uovo can keep food and labor costs low enough to charge $18 for a linguine vongole. It's a uniform business model; there's no wasted labor or space.

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So, is pasta worth the price tag?

Given everything that goes into a house-made plate of pasta, my thinking is this: You should only buy pricey pasta at restaurants where the richness of the fresh noodles is the differentiating factor. Because here's the real secret: A whole lot of dried, store-bought pasta is perfectly good. And I say this as someone whose whole side hustle involves selling the homemade stuff.

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Fresh pasta doesn't have to be the be-all and end-all of Italian American cuisine. It's been fetishized, certainly, to the point where restaurants feel pressured to reject dried pasta on principle and favor only the highest quality pasta. In the process, we've priced out the sizable pool of diners who might otherwise have been fine with store-bought.

My solution? Restaurants can simply offer both, with an upcharge for fresh house-made pasta and a more reasonable price for something like bronze dyed Rummo or La Molisana. These latter options will still make a killer carbonara, cacio e pepe, or all'amatriciana. Extruded pasta shapes keep their starch as they cook, and thus add more to those sauces than a fresh egg noodle can. The labor cost is nothing. The price is dirt cheap. The dish belongs to everyone again.

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