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At first, Giovanni Rana Pastificio & Cucina might look like any other smart but unfussy Italian trattoria, with its exposed beams and brick walls, uncovered aged wooden tables, and copper pots hanging from the ceiling. The history of how this restaurant came to be, though, is a little bit different, and it starts in Italy.
Giovanni Rana is the founder, president, and face of Giovanni Rana, a pasta company that is well known in Italy and throughout Europe for the fresh pasta he sells in grocery stores and a chain of small, casual restaurants.
Mr. Rana has been in the business since the 1950s. His parents owned a bread bakery, and divided duties among their three sons: one worked with the bread, one with the pastry, and Giovanni made pasta by hand. In the late 50s, he started his own business with his wife Laura. He bought a motorbike with a loan from a friend and used it to deliver his hand-stuffed tortellini door to door. The war had driven Italian housewives into the workforce, and this presented a perfect niche for Mr. Rana's business. Soon he was able to buy a car and a storefront, and the business continued to grow from there. By the seventies, he was consulting with engineers to build custom machines that would create pastas as if they had been done by hand.
Still, it wasn't really until the 1990s that his business blew up in a major way. His son Gian Luca Rana, the company's CEO, started an advertising campaign that made his father the brand itself. He put him in the commercials, and put his face on the products. The company is now such a phenomenon in Italy that university students study the company in business classes. And throughout it all, it's remained a family business.
Opening an Italian restaurant in Chelsea Market so different from his other ventures (which are small fast-casual restaurants) may seem like a strange move, but according to Mr. Rana, he is simply realizing a long-held dream. He has always been obsessed with America and American culture, and has always wanted to bring his pasta to New York. He cites 1945 as the year he fell in love with America, when American soldiers stationed in Italy gave him a piece of chocolate. "It was so good, I fell in love with America as soon as I tasted it." The family sees this restaurant as their introduction to the country, and they wanted to do something new, something special and personal. With chefs Francesco Berardinelli and Giancarlo Perbellini, they have an expanded Italian menu that focuses on, but is not limited to, fresh pasta.
The lofty space, the design of which was overseen by his daughter-in-law Antonella and a group of local designers and artists, is filled with reminders of the company's beginnings: there are several of Mr. Rana's original custom pasta machines, one of which sits in a glass box underneath the host's desk. The red motorbike he used to make his deliveries way back when hangs on the wall over the bar. "My motorbike brought me so much luck," says Rana, "Which is why I brought it here."
Towards the back is the elevated and windowed kitchen, as well as a shop, called A Casa Mia, which occupies a corner of the dining room and sells Italian staples like olive oil, cheese, and some cookware. Beyond that is the real second half of the business: a takeout area with a door into the market (the dining room has its own door from the street). Here you find a glass case of gloriously varied and colored fresh pastas, displaying everything from a stuffed tortellinis to chili, beet, or squid ink flavored spaghetti, among others. You can get your pasta in a bag to take home, or they'll make it for you on the spot and toss it with sauce. At noon on a Wednesday, this area was filling up with lunchers and tourists coming in from Chelsea Market.
* Mr. Rana spoke through a translator.
Giovanni Rana Pastificio & Cucina
About the author: Hally Wolhandler is a New York native, life-long food lover, and Serious Eats intern. She also interns at Food52, and works in the bakery at Dorie Greenspan's Beurre & Sel cookie company, where she wields the cookie cutters.