Hello Pasta vs. Nooi: A Midtown Pasta Chain Showdown
In Midtown, we’re used to the sight of fast food joints, generic “design your own salad” bars, and gimmicky interpretations of pizza. But when Hello Pasta (Lex btw. 54+55th) and Nooi (Lex btw. 40+41st), two expansion-hungry fast food pasta chains, opened within walking distance and a week of each other, it caught our attention. As skeptical as we are about fast food pasta, a Midtown Lunch Ultimate Taste Test Pasta Showdown to the death clearly was in order. Who’s pasta is worth its salt? Which sauce to get and which ones should they pour down the drain? Or do we declare a double TKO, and send both of these chains back to where they came from. The answer is after the jump…
I visited both spots three times each over the last two weeks (I got to Hello Pasta so early on opening day I was their third customer! Whoo hoo.) My first pasta from Hello Pasta was a steaming hot takeout container of fusilli bolognese, which I topped with “extra” parmesan for an additional 25 cents. The pasta texture veered on the soft, gummy side, which was disappointing, but forgivable considering it was their first day. Still, you can’t build a pasta empire on a foundation of limp noodles, so figured I’d better try the others – farfalle, conchiglie, and gluten free penne – before passing sweeping judgments on the fledgling pasta chain.
The bolognese sauce didn’t have enough ground beef for my taste, but the tomato sauce base was alright – like Prego alright, which means it had the requisite spices that makes it better than plain tomato sauce, but not groundbreaking enough to justify the $8 I paid. In terms of hunger satisfaction, I got the smaller 14 oz. “Handy” container, which was enough carbohydrates to keep me from wanting to eat more. But that’s what carbs do – fill you up. It could’ve/should’ve been more delicious. Better luck next time, Hello Pasta. Time to try Nooi’s “Bolo” aka bolognese…
Unlike Hello Pasta, the Nooi that just opened on Lex btw. 40+41st isn’t the chain’s first location. It’s the first Stateside outpost of the established French pasta chain, so it makes sense that they’ve got the recipe and pasta operation down. Nooi doesn’t offer all their pasta shapes everyday, so you’re limited to regular or the multigrain version of whatever pasta is in rotation. Whether they’re offering penne, macaroni, bow ties, or fusilli is a crapshoot, but this turns out to be a better business decision as they manage to yield almost perfectly al dente pasta every time. I also appreciated Nooi’s “toppings station” where the toppings attendant offers to add any two to your pasta.
Best part? The toppings are included in the price and you can choose between green olives, parmesan, basil, tomato, black olives, asiago, mozzarella, chili powder, crushed red pepper, thyme, oregano, croutons, sesame, and fried onions. The basil and fresh tomatoes I used to top the Bolo added welcome color and texture to the al dente penne, which made it seem extra “fresh”. Each piece of penne was lightly coated with the Bolo sauce, which was enough for me. But those who prefer more sauce might want to ask for it. Like Hello Pasta, Nooi’s bolognese was skimpy on the ground beef and while neither sauce was particularly impressive, I would choose Nooi’s slightly more flavorful sauce, superior pasta, and $5.45 price in this case.
On the left is Nooi’s “Baconara”, which is their equivalent to carbonara. The well-cooked bow ties were only available in the large size, which is annoying if you’re eating two containers of pasta a day like I was. There were discernible pieces of bacon though, and the cream and parmesan cheese didn’t cake together, leaving each bow tie coated with the right amount of sauce so you don’t feel weighed down by each bite. On the other hand, Hello Pasta’s farfalle carbonara had just specks of bacon, but there was a strong smoked bacon scent (so pervasive, it was like truffle oil) that didn’t match up to the amount of bacon you can actually see. And I’ll be the first to admit that I usually ask for an obscene amount of parmesan to intensify the cheese flavor, but seeing it caked on Hello Pasta’s farfalle like a thick layer of old face powder is highly unappetizing. Still, the bacon-scented cream sauce is addictive, like the cheese powder from a box of Kraft mac and cheese. It’s not high quality cheese, but, somehow, it sparks some sort of kid craving for junk food. My best comparison would be Cheetos: you know it’s not good for you, but one more powder cheese-covered corn puff won’t hurt, so you keep digging for one more bite, hoping it will be the cheesiest Cheeto. It’s up to you to decide whether you want this sort of lunch experience or not.
The next day I went for pesto. Hello Pasta was out of penne by 1:30PM, which was a shame because I wanted to compare that pasta from both places. Well, they didn’t have it so I ordered the pesto on conchiglie pasta. First off, there wasn’t much of a basil flavor, which disqualifies it immediately because what I got should’ve been labeled olive-and-pine-nut-oil. The overcooked conchigilie and “pesto” left a cloying fatty feel on the tongue, which made lunch hard to get through.
On the other hand, Nooi’s pesto had plenty of basil, but not enough garlic flavor. It was also a bit unusual to chew through since Nooi’s pesto has the broken-down consistency of Saag Paneer.
We tried to compare similar pastas and sauces from Hello Pasta and Nooi, but both of these places have many more pastas – some with meat, chicken, etc. – that we’re leaving up to you to decide on. In terms of pasta texture, Nooi takes the cake hands down, but it’s only Hello Pasta’s very first location so it’s possible they’re still working out the kinks. As a wild card, I ordered the Vodkaya from Nooi after asking the girl who was taking my order what she’d recommend. She said, “I looooove the Vodakaya.” so I got it. Any food recommended with multiple “ooo’s” deserves a try. (On different occasions, I asked the guys at Hello Pasta which pastas they’d suggest; their replies were vague each time.) Ultimately, Nooi’s Vodkaya with basil, fresh tomato, and mozzarella cheese turned out to be the ultimate combo. The shredded mozzarella cheese topping melted into strings over the penne and balanced cream sauce. I’d go back without hesitation for this one.
Hello Pasta 649 Lexington btw. 54+55th, 212-557-2782
Nooi, 370 Lexington (btw. 40+41st)