Last week, Luca Catalfamo packed a few T-shirts and left Milan — where he lives and where he runs Casa Ramen, one of that city’s few ramen shops — for New York. The Italian chef settled in an apartment just above Ramen Lab (70 Kenmare Street; 646-613-6522). He’s in town for a three week pop-up at Sun Noodle’s standing-room-only experimental noodle counter in Nolita, which began the first night of a Casa Ramen takeover last Tuesday.
Catalfamo will be preparing three different bowls during his stint at the shop: Count on noodles doppio peporoncino with spicy chicken, spinach, and bean sprouts and Milano king tonkotsu with chashu pork and kakuni (braised pork and pork belly) every night of the pop-up, which runs through December 19. The third choice, pumpkin miso with buckwheat noodles and black-truffle butter, points to a collaboration with Urbani truffles, which is the reason Catalfamo is cooking at Ramen Lab in the first place.
Kenshiro Uki, VP of operations at Sun Noodle, tells the Voice that Urbani approached the company about helping them promote more truffles. “I thought the only way we can do it is if we get an Italian ramen chef. I’ve always followed him [Catalfamo]. I thought, ‘If we can bring him in, I think we can pull it off.’ ”
Uki says the goal of Ramen Lab is to show people different kinds of ramen. “Even in Japan now, the second generation is doing different styles, creative chefs are using different techniques and great ingredients. Now we’re seeing a wave of more of the lighter broth — people are starting to appreciate that.”
At home, Catalfamo makes his own noodles with durum flour, so Uki worked with him to develop a special flour blend for Catalfamo to use while here in NYC — it swaps in some durum, which gives the noodle a little more of a bite. He uses that particular noodle in the doppio bowl, which is an important element of that dish because it’s made with very little broth. The chef makes it with varying degrees of spiciness, heating it up with his own mixture of sansho pepper and Mexican chile. “I like spicy; my family is from Sicily,” he says.
It might seem unusual for an Italian chef to specialize in a dish that originates in Asia, but for Catalfamo it was an instant click. He says he’d never heard about ramen until six years ago, when he saw a line outside a restaurant and decided to see what people were waiting for. The restaurant was Ippudo here in New York, and that first-time experience changed everything. “It reminded me of Italy — it was pasta, it was soup, but it was something that shocked me.”
Catalfamo set out to learn everything he could about ramen. “I started researching ramen and making my own. After a year I opened my own restaurant in Italy.”
In a twist of fate (or the synchronicity of a global food world), the owner of the Japan-based Ippudo chain visited Casa Ramen while visiting Milan, and he liked it so much that he invited Catalfamo to become a participating vendor at the Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum in Japan, the first non-Japanese chef to do so. “It’s kind of like a dream,” Catalfamo says. “Now I am here in New York, making ramen.”
Ramen Lab is open Tuesday–Saturday from 5–10 p.m. and will feature Luca Catalfamo’s ramen until December 19. Check for updates at Ramen Lab’s website.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 8, 2015