If you are looking for a super fun dinner party idea, a pasta bar is it! Similar to the burger buffet I shared a while back, a pasta bar lets everyone get creative making their own personal pasta bowl. Although they might not look it, both a pasta bar and burger buffet are not at all difficult to put together, by the way. But of the two, entertaining with a pasta bar is the easiest, mostly because you can prepare almost everything in advance. And! Whether your guests are healthy or not, gluten free, vegan or Paleo, there’s something for everyone.
Here’s how I did it…
How to Do a Pasta Bar
Step 1: Choose 3 to 4 Different Types of Pasta
I picked 5 different pastas for our pasta bar, but I think that was actually a bit too many. If I had it to do over again I would have probably selected just 3 varieties. To accommodate any dietary restrictions your guests may have you’ll want to have a selection of gluten-free, grain-free pastas. And for fun and variety, I think it is important to also have different shapes and sizes. Here’s what I suggest you offer:
- Gluten Free Pasta. I went with a garbanzo bean pasta from Banza, but Ancient Harvest also makes a delicious line of gluten-free quinoa pasta varieties.
- Vegetable-Only Pasta. I decided to use butternut squash noodles, but zucchini noodles would also be a good option. (Note: to cook vegetable-only pasta simply bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the vegetable pasta and cook for 1 to 2 minutes then drain and toss with extra virgin olive oil and salt. It is best to cook vegetable pasta 15 minutes before serving.)
- Whole Wheat Pasta. I always like Italian-made organic DeLallo brand, but there are plenty of great whole wheat pasta brands on the market these days. Check out the Huffington Post whole grain pasta taste test (with 15 different pastas!) for additional ideas.
- ***Homemade whole grain pasta.*** This one is really optional BUT if you want to make things extra special then nothing beats homemade pasta! I used my whole grain homemade pasta recipe with spinach for our pasta bar. I made the pasta five days in advance, froze the noodles (here’s how to freeze homemade pasta) and then cooked them just before our guests arrived. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of making your own, you might be lucky enough to have a local gourmet Italian market that sells fresh pasta. We have Carmine’s Market right down the street and they sell amazing fresh pasta but you can also order fresh pasta online from Perfect Pasta Online.
Tips on Cooking Pasta for Your Pasta Bar
Everyone knows pasta is just about one of the easiest foods on the planet to cook. However, if you are making 4 or 5 different pasta varieties and trying to serve them all at once then things can get a little tricky. But here’s what worked great for me…
- About 3 hours before everyone arrived I cooked each pasta variety al dente and separately using one very large pot. It is important not to over cook the pasta because you will need to recook it for about a minute right before dinnertime (see #2 below.) To save time and avoid having to wait for the water to boil for each new pasta, I drained the pasta into another large pot and used the same water over and over. Transfer the cooked pasta to serving bowls, drizzle in some extra virgin olive oil, toss and cover with a wet paper towel. Note: If you are cooking for a guest who is gluten intolerant or has Celiac disease, you will want to cook the gluten-free pasta first.
- About 15 to 20 minutes before serving dinner you will need to “freshen up” the cooked pasta by quick-cooking each one for about 1 minute in boiling water. Again, to save time, I cooked each pasta variety in one big pot and just drained the boiling water into another pot and used the same water over and over. Transfer the cooked pasta back to the serving dishes and cover each bowl with a hot, damp paper towel.
- Transfer the pasta to a 200 degree oven with the door slightly open to keep warm. Note: For best results, do not leave the pasta in the oven for more than 30 minutes.
Step 2: Choose 3 to 4 cooked vegetables
You can do a wide assortment of different vegetables, or even beans! When picking your vegetables, think color. It is most visually appealing to have something red, green and white….
- Red Vegetables. Roasted cherry tomatoes or roasted red peppers.
- Green Vegetables. Steamed broccoli, sauteed spinach with garlic, or broccoli rabe (FYI: how to cook broccoli rabe perfectly!)
- White Vegetables. Roasted artichokes (I used frozen artichokes, tossed them in extra virgin olive oil and roasted them, without thawing, in a 400 degree oven for about 35 minutes), caramelized onions, steamed cauliflower or white beans.
Step 3: Choose at Least 2 Sauces
I don’t think you need to go overboard with tons of different sauce options on a pasta bar. However, it is nice to offer at least 2 different sauce options. One of the great things about sauces is that just about all of them can be made several days in advance. I like the idea of having at least one tomato-based sauce and one non-tomato sauce….
- Tomato Sauce. You can’t go wrong with a Classic Marinara Sauce . If you like sauces a bit more chunky check out this Garlicky Cherry Tomato Sauce recipe. Pasta All Vodka is also always a hit! If you have olive and anchovy lovers then Puttanesca sauce is a GREAT red sauce. And if you wanted to get a little creative you could also do my Hidden Vegetable Sauce (nobody will ever guess this recipe hides 8 different veggies)
- White Sauce. If you are trying to keep your pasta bar clean, then you will want to choose a dairy-free white sauce such as Garlic and White Wine Sauce, Mushroom Sauce, etc. (FYI: My Dairy Free Alfredo Sauce takes less than 10 minutes to make!)
- ***Meat-Based Sauce.*** This one is really optional but it’s a nice touch if you have the extra time. My Slow Cooker Bolognese (with LOTS of hidden vegetables) is always big hit but you could also do a more basic Tomato with Meat Sauce.
Step 4: Offer 1 or 2 Meat / Protein Options
You don’t need to go too crazy with tons of meat, but you should offer at least one option. If you are not trying to do a clean pasta bar you could of course always add fatty meats like sausage, but if you are trying to keep it healthy here’s what I suggest:
- Meatballs. My Baked Turkey Meatballs are just about the easiest meatballs in the world to make. Slow cooker turkey meatballs are also a great option. (FYI: For both recipes you can substitute grass-fed beef, bison, or lamb for the turkey.)
- Roasted or Rotisserie Chicken. It’s hard to go wrong with chicken!
- Pan-Fried Tofu. If you think you don’t like tofu, you might not have tried pan-fried tofu.
Step 5: Set Up a Condiment Station
You could go crazy with the pasta bar condiment station, but I think it’s a good idea to try to add between 5 and 8 options. Here are just a few ideas…
- Garlic Spread
- Pesto (this Avocado Basil Pesto look good!)
- Whole and/ or minced olives
- Roasted garlic
- Homemade Vegan Cheese recipe
- Chopped garlic
- Calabrian chile spread
- Romesco (check out this Romesco recipe)
- Porcini Mushroom “Cream” (this is the stuff in the little tiny jar with the white lid to the far left in the photo above. Oh. My. Gosh. I just can’t get enough of it! I bought it at our local Italian gourmet market, Carmines, but you can also buy it on Amazon. And yes, it is clean! The ingredients are as simple as 1-2-3: porcini mushrooms, olive oil, salt.
Step 5: Be Prepared for (Most) Everyone to Separate their Food Into Little Piles in Their Bowls
And finally, I couldn’t help but share what every single person did with their pasta bowls…
For some reason I thought everyone would “toss” their pasta and ingredients all together, but instead I noticed everybody (including myself!) ended up putting their food in neat little piles in their deep dish bowls.
Speaking of bowls, I would definitely do deep dish bowls over plates. There’s just something that seems more special about a “pasta bowl” than a “pasta plate” when serving a pasta bar.
Also, I found it interesting that our guests (including myself) selected several different types of pasta with several different sauces. This is what my bowl ended up looking like…
So that’s it! It’s easy to set up a pasta bar and it really is a fun way to entertain. If you try it or if you have any suggestions for additions to the pasta bar item list above please leave a comment and let me know….