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Joseph Severino, who built a pasta empire from scratch by bringing Italy to South Jersey, dies at 87

Joseph Severino, 87, who brought high-quality artisanal pasta from his native Italy to South Jersey and turned a small home shop into an empire, died at his home in Westmont, of lung cancer.

Joseph Severino
Joseph SeverinoRead moreSeverino family (custom credit)

Joseph Severino, 87, who brought high-quality artisanal pasta from his native Italy to South Jersey and turned a small home shop into an empire, died Thursday, Dec. 19, at his home in Westmont, of lung cancer.

Born Nov. 12, 1932, in southern Italy’s San Roberto, Mr. Severino worked for his father doing masonry after finishing eighth grade, building mausoleums, cemeteries, and monuments throughout the area. He later went into the Carabinieri militarized police force, traveling throughout Italy, before leaving for the United States in 1957.

In Philadelphia, Mr. Severino worked various jobs, including painting houses and construction, before becoming a shoe salesman at a shop on Chestnut Street, where he honed his retail business skills. He married Anna Maria Preti, a fellow Italian immigrant, and the two decided to return to Italy.

In her native Rome, they struggled to make a life, with Mr. Severino finding new work selling shoes in Rome, said Louis Severino, his elder son from a previous marriage.

“He was always a little bit aggressive. He kind of always wanted more,” Louis said. “So there was a small little pasta-manufacturing person who lived up the street from where they had their apartment, and he asked whether he could apprentice there.”

In Italy, people went to their small local shops — the baker, the butcher, the pasta-maker — to buy what they needed, and Mr. Severino wanted to learn the trade and open his own shop. The local pasta-maker was willing to teach Mr. Severino on one condition: He had to return to the U.S., as he had promised, to avoid becoming a competitor.

He did. In 1971, Mr. Severino and his wife, and their children set up shop with a single pasta machine in Haddon Township, in a dirty rental garage on French Avenue that they diligently cleaned out and turned into the home of what was originally the Severino Ravioli Co.

Things did not quite go as planned, said his younger son, Peter Severino. After all, the idea of small-batch fresh pasta was literally foreign to would-be customers, and there was no culture of regularly visiting a tiny pasta shop to make meals.

“For the first few years, it was really difficult,” Peter said.

Fresh pasta doesn’t last long, and it’s not meant to. So Mr. Severino, who had thought of his business as a small shop focused on retail, began looking to get into the wholesale business, Peter Severino said.

“It was never meant to be a wholesale business, but out of necessity he went to restaurants to try to peddle this leftover product of fresh pasta,” he said.

Slowly but surely, the pasta began to find a following. “They used to sit in the office a lot, waiting for people to come in,” Louis Severino said.

As word spread, the company outgrew the garage, moving to its current location on Haddon Avenue in Westmont. The original plan was to use half the space, both for making pasta and selling it, and to rent out the other half. But sales grew so quickly that the company took over the whole place.

Its offerings grew, too, expanding to include dried pasta and many more varieties. Eventually, the Severino Pasta Co. was supplying fresh pasta to restaurants all over the Philadelphia region, stocking shelves in Whole Foods, and filling boxes for Blue Apron and other meal-delivery kit services.

And through it all, Mr. Severino refused to take shortcuts. There would be no skimping on quality, because that was no way to make his pasta.

That passion and devotion was the key to his success. “It’s just hard work, dedication to family, and dedication to quality,” said Riccardo Longo, who with his father, Mario, is a longtime restaurateur who has had more than 20 restaurants on the East Coast over the years. Mario Longo and Mr. Severino, both Italian immigrants in the region, became close friends, and Severino pasta is used to this day in many restaurants owned by the Longos.

“We trust them,” Riccardo Longo said. Some of their restaurants make their own pasta in-house, but when they need help, they call on the Severinos and know the quality will match, he said: “We wouldn’t let just anybody do that.”

Mr. Severino was old-school, his elder son said — there was skepticism when computers were first brought into the company — and even as the company expanded, he preferred the kind of face-to-face, direct interactions that had built the company in its early days.

He was also an inveterate tinkerer, constantly trying to fix things, improve them, or learn how they worked.

Family was extremely important to Mr. Severino, his sons said, and today, the second generation of Severinos is leading the family business as the third generation works in it.

In addition to his sons, Mr. Severino is survived by his daughter, Carla; siblings Gesualda “Lilla” Severino Idone and Marianna “Annina” Severino Rabbiolo; six nieces and nephews; and eight grandchildren. His wife, Anna Maria, died last year.

A viewing was held Thursday. Visitation will be Friday, Dec. 27, beginning at 9:30 a.m., followed by a eulogy at 10:45 and a Funeral Mass at 11 at Saint Teresa of Calcutta Parish Holy Saviour Church, 50 Emerald Ave., in Haddon Township.

The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Samaritan Hospice, 5 Eves Drive, Suite 300, in Marlton, N.J., or to American Cancer Society, 1851 Old Cuthbert Rd., in Cherry Hill, N.J.