DUE TO THE TIME and place of my upbringing — white-bread suburb, 1970s and 1980s, WASPish family — I spent the first 19 years of my life believing that pasta must come from blue boxes and be boiled into a mushy mound, topped with "spaghetti" sauce that came from a jar, and "Parmesan" cheese sprinkled from a green can.
It was while living as an exchange student in a village near Cremona, Italy, that I realized I was living a pasta lie. Anna, the mother of the family, would spend the afternoon making stuffed pastas by hand. And her tortellini di zucca agnolotti and marubini were nothing like the spaghetti back home in West Deptford. Rather than red sauce, they'd be served with a little brown butter and sage or a broth, and top with fresh grated Grana Padano. It was an honest-to-goodness revelation from which I have never looked back.
My passion for good pasta is intense and limitless. Even during the dark days of all that Atkins-South Beach nonsense, I managed to ignore the low-carb advice and indulge my pasta lust unabated. If pasta was going to make me fat, well, then damn it, I'd be fat.
The irony of this is that only 20 minutes from my childhood home, in Westmont, there is a mom-and-pop shop where Joseph and Anna Maria Severino have made pasta the traditional way since 1971 — by hand, with 100 percent semolina flour, cut with brass dyes and air-dried. That's the way they learned it during an apprenticeship in Rome with an artisan pasta maker.
The Severinos are still there, four decades later, with the second generation now running things. Which is one reason that my children will never know the blue box, the jar or the green can. "We never had the know-how of using chemicals," said Pete Severino. "When my mother and father created the business in 1971, they created an all-natural product while their competitors had engineers on staff trying to get more out of a batch of ricotta or dough."
"Salespeople would come around with egg powders and this yellow stuff that was a dough conditioner. But we never knew how to use that stuff," said Pete's brother Lou. "I guess we were too dumb to use conditioners," he added with a laugh.
Of course, now everyone wants the kind of artisan product the Severinos make. Which is why pasta from the mom-and-pop shop is now being sold in 150 Whole Foods stores in five regions around the U.S. That includes branded "pasta venues" inside 17 stores, where Severino trains Whole Foods employees to cut fresh pasta to order.
"I went to Whole Foods 12 years ago with cheese manicotti and ravioli, never with the intent to be where we are today," Pete said. "We now have over 200 [products] available. For a small mom-and-pop, that's a big undertaking."
The Severinos still have their retail outlet in Westmont, but they've also invested in an 11,000-square-foot distribution center in Cherry Hill, with a 3,000-square-foot freezer. They've managed to pull off the most elusive trick in the specialty food business: Growing into a player, while retaining a commitment to traditional, authentic artisan methods.
Pete Severino has been a friend of mine for years, and is my primary source on all things pasta. So I dropped by the store last week to get some pasta tips and find something new. Though pasta is an all-year-round thing for me, I particularly love when the weather turns warm and we start to see fresh local produce in the markets, perfect for tossing with a new pasta style I've never tried before. Severino did not disappoint, breaking out varieties like the wide, ruffled mafaldine, a squid-ink bucatini and a thin, light sciatelle that I experimented with this week.
I'm not alone. Over the past decade or so, it has often been Severino that indirectly introduced diners to many different pastas.
While many chefs now make their pastas in house, Severino still has robust business selling to restaurants in Philadelphia. One of the first breakthrough restaurant customers in Center City was Audrey Claire in the late 1990s. "When Audrey Claire opened, they were the bomb," Pete said. "Marcie Turney [then chef] came to me and said, 'I want this ribbon pasta, pappardelle.' No one was doing that. They put it on the menu with portobello mushrooms. And it's still on the menu today."
The Severinos work with many chefs intimately on their menus, and in the process have created a number of unique or experimental pastas. "I remember a night when Pete and I were here trying to figure out how to make a striped ravioli," Lou said.
"Even as we grow, we're still a small enough company making small batches by hand. We can shift gears and be flexible," Pete said.
For example, Gianluca Demontis at Melograno approached Pete about making the golden pastas he remembered from Italy. Pete remembered seeing those egg pastas on a trip to Bologna, and he re-created them in the shop. "It was an almost-all-egg pasta," he said. "Here in house, we still call it the Melograno Pasta."
"Pasta is supposed to look yellow like that," interjected Pete's sister, Carla. "It's not supposed to be all pale and white."
But even as they get bigger, they also have invested in even greater artisan techniques. They've replaced Teflon dies with brass made by an artisan. Brass allows for the pasta to heat properly and tears at the pasta a little bit, giving it more texture, more like what you'd find in the old country.
"The guys in Brooklyn who make these dies are real artists," Pete said. "I can send them any shape and they'll do it." Which is a good thing, because even with 200 products, the Severinos have only scratched the surface of the hundreds of pasta styles.
"This is a handmade product with so many variations," Pete said. "It changes every week. Pasta is endless."
Jason Wilson has twice won the award for best newspaper food column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of Boozehound and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.