"A restaurant up the street, Jane, does one of the best dishes ever," says Sarah Raffetto, the blonde, blue-eyed 23-year-old in line to one day take the reins of her family's old-time pasta shop, Raffetto's. "The chef toasts gnocchi in a pan. They get crunchy on the outside but stay soft. Then they're topped in a truffle-cream sauce. It's stupid-good."
That should come as no surprise, because the gnocchi comes from Raffetto's. Sarah's family has been in the pasta business since 1906, when her great-grandfather started selling meat and spinach ravioli handmade in the Genoese style.
For a time, Marcello Raffetto sold only this ravioli, cheese ravioli, homemade egg noodles, and dry pasta at his Houston Street shop. (To make dry pasta, dough strands were shaped into nests, left to desiccate on baker's boards, and positioned under fans to speed things up.) New Yorkers developed a taste for fresh pasta in the 1970's, so Raffetto's moved away from dry and out into various fresh pasta flavors. Today, Sarah, her father (Andrew), and her grandmother (Romana) make 38 kinds of ravioli, four kinds of gnocchi, cavatelli, manicotti, tortellini, tortellone, 19 kinds of noodles in widths ranging from 12 inches to angel hair, and 13 sauces to put on them. The second, third, and fourth generation Raffettos are often all in the shop at once, and any one of them will hand-cut your long-strand pasta to-order.
The noisy machine that does the cutting stands in the middle of the room, back between the shop and kitchen. It has been in steady use in Raffetto's since 1917. "They stopped making this guillotine-style machine around World War II," Andrew says. "Modern pasta cutters do one sheet at a time. This thing can handle 40."
Bursts of its squeaking and churning punctuate the stillness of Raffetto's. A few customers typically browse the olive oils, prepared foods, cheeses, sliced meats, canned tomatoes, and other pantry items, and typically they'll leave with a few boxes of ravioli tucked under an arm. Raffetto's sells Italian pantry and specialty items, but is, at its core, a pasta shop. Other offerings simply serve to be eaten before, after, or with pasta.
During my visit, I ordered a pound of black pepper pappardelle. The cutter can't do inch-thick noodles, so Sarah fished a knife out of her pocket and diced up the dough sheet herself. I also got a pound of rosemary fettuccine, pumpkin gnocchi, and two bags of pasta from the Italian producer La Terra e il Cielo (whole wheat orecchiette and farro cavatappi), a cooperative of farms based in Le Marche, Italy.
Other noodle flavors include squid ink, saffron, mushroom, lemon, buckwheat, parsley-basil, chocolate, and chestnut, though the latter is temporarily out of action. "There's a chestnut shortage in Italy," Sarah laments.
That range reflects huge growth from the simple days of old. Some new flavors, like roasted red pepper, have come from customer suggestions. Some, like black pepper, come from chef requests. Raffetto's sells pasta to restaurants across the city, including Da Silvano, Il Mulino, and Po.
"Sometimes restaurants will ask for a special pasta," Andrew says. "We'll make it. Then the menu will change or the restaurant will go out of business, but the pasta will be so good that we'll keep making it."
At Raffetto's, the pasta is pristine and the price is right. For less than $2, you can walk away with a pound of the dry pasta displayed in glass behind the counter. It comes in uncommon shapes like strozzapreti ("priest-stranglers") and perciatelli (like bucatini, Sarah says, "but with a slight size difference"). For $3 and change, you can get a pound of handmade lemon or whole-wheat pasta, fresh-cut.
For pasta, sauces bubble on a six-burner range in the kitchen. "We're constantly making sauces: tomato-basil, marinara, Bolognese," Sarah says. "Meatballs and lasagna are always cooking. It's a perpetual wave of smells."
Two of the more intriguing sauces are a "pink" sauce, a vodka sauce made with cognac instead of vodka, and the walnut pesto popular in Liguria. Pre-made dishes like chestnut bread pudding, baked ziti Amatriciana, a solid and tomato-sauced polenta, and mozzarella salad come from family recipes. Sauces and prepared foods are available to-go. But to go into Raffetto's and leave without fresh pasta would be a travesty. Andrew even has plans for a new pasta shape. He just got equipment to make borsellini—pasta twists shaped like "little bags."
Today, the old-school pasta emporium is still evolving, and it will be interesting to see what new flavors are on the cutter tomorrow.
About the author: Chris Malloy is a writer from the Philadelphia area. He has a Master's in Food Studies from Boston University. If you enjoyed this story, check out some of his other work.