Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Carmella Alvaro of Melina's Fresh Pasta chatted with me on the phone while a capicola ham cured from the ceiling of her parents' house in upstate New York.
"My parents did everything when I was growing up that's cool now. My dad has meat curing in his house right now," she says. "As a kid, getting dropped off at soccer practice, much to my horror, my dad's on the next hill gathering dandelion greens for dinner."
I refrain from telling her that my mother has similar horror stories. Like my mother, Alvaro is the first American-born child in her family. Her parents, older sister and brother emigrated from Calabria, Italy, to New York, where Melina, as they call her, was born. "I was a vegetarian for five years because I went to get the laundry one day and there was a lamb hanging from the ceiling," she remembers.
"My Greek mother has the same stories," I explain. "She almost went vegetarian after hearing my grandfather and his buddies slaughter an Easter lamb in the basement, screaming 'murderer' from the top of the stairs. She was 9."
"Yes! Yes!" Alvaro laughs. "Someone finally understands me!"
Alvaro's upbringing around a big Southern Italian table serves as the inspiration for her business, Melina's Fresh Pasta. She does confess that fresh pasta is a Northern Italian tradition, not something her parents grew up with in the south. So she took a trip to Bologna to study how to roll out proper sfoglia, fresh egg pasta dough.
"I immersed myself into somebody's home and was taught family recipes and then went to pasta shops and got to spend some time watching the women," she says. "They still do everything by hand; nothing's mechanical. They make hundreds of pounds a day for all the pasta shops, every day."
Shortly after returning to Raleigh, Alvaro started making pasta, also by hand, in a rented commercial kitchen. Within a year, Alvaro has grown a business via farmers markets around the Triangle. In her first week she hit three markets, she says, making 700 ravioli and selling out by 9 a.m.
Alvaro makes everything from scratch, using local ingredients when possible. Melina's Pastas are sold fresh, meaning they are frozen immediately after they're made. Inspired by Italian culinary legend Marcella Hazan, Alvaro says she feeds off the basics in Hazan's cookbooks. "She is the definition of Italian cooking, using very few, but very fresh ingredients. They're the best ingredients you can find. She says throughout her books, 'If you can't find 'x,' then don't bother making this dish.'"
If you've seen Big Night, you've been warned that "sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone." Similarly, Melina's best-selling ravioli echo the tone of teenage angst, screaming for solitude with creative ingredient combinations that need no company. Spinach and cheese embrace a secret dash of nutmeg while the lemon ricotta makes a bit of noise with a burst of preserved lemon smoothed by homemade ricotta. Seasonal varieties include a tangy pear and pecorino and another made with potato and speck, a smoked prosciutto. For ready-to-eat family meals, she sells lasagna with homemade noodles, sauce and that week's vegetable harvest. Her Calabrian roots are planted in her eggplant parmesan, which is from her mother's recipe.
Alvaro focuses on traditional pastas that shine with just a dab of fresh butter, a swift shaving or two of pecorino and a dollop of marinara—not the faux Italian-inspired fare you'll find at Olive Garden. "There's no such thing as an Olive Garden in Italy," she says.
Sara Nelson and Lisa Ramsden, both in their 20s, spend Friday nights rolling out basil fettuccine and figuring out the right amount of natural magenta tint for beet pasta shells. They're the duo behind Porcino (the name means "little pig"), a Carrboro-based pasta business that was launched last year by local food activist Andrea Wood.
The women share a passion for local food and flavor. (Nelson is also one-half of Bikescream!, a business that delivers homemade ice cream by bicycle cart.) They buy vegetable powders from organic sources and grind herbs and greens themselves. Curry macaroni, they say, is the most popular, selling for $4 for a bag that serves three to four adults. The spice is light, pairing well with sautéed greens and onion. Other favorites include nutmeg rigatoni and fettuccine in smoked paprika or cilantro-lime. The pastas are dehydrated immediately after they're made, giving them a longer shelf life, though refrigeration is still recommended.
Porcino features simple sauces too, including an herb tomato, caper and olive, and a mushroom version made by local mushroom farmers and foragers Woodfruit. The sauces pair perfectly with Porcino's pizza doughs, which are also available in whole wheat.
While balancing a family and a toddler, Meredith Freehling of Dur'm Pasta Co. arrives at the Durham Farmers' Market every Saturday morning to sell—and to shop. "For my ravioli and pierogies, the kind of ingredients I can find in the market determines what I can make for the week," she says. "Right now, radishes, beets, hearty vegetables. I see beet fettuccine, arugula pesto ravioli. A lot of cabbages are coming in that are looking beautiful for sauerkraut pierogies. They're not my top seller, but I usually make six to eight orders."
Freehling describes the pasta-making process as "a labor of love." She learned how to roll dough in culinary school and later worked as a pastry chef at Four Square for four years.
"Dough is the base," she says. "It wasn't difficult to make the transition. The only way you're going to have great pasta is if you have a great dough."
Her workload is divided into a rigid dough-making schedule, making 35 to 40 pounds a week, cutting it all by hand. "We eat a lot of pasta scrap at the house," she says.
Freehling's relationships with farmers allow her to creatively use local produce. For color and added nutritional value, she regularly incorporates fresh pureed spinach or beets into the pastas. Recently she folded Brinkley Farms pumpkin and Piedmont Biofuels arugula into her ravioli. Her Polish pierogies—ravioli-like, moon-shaped pasta stuffed with potato and other ingredients— are best-sellers. A dozen can feed two to three people. "It blows my mind every Saturday. I have so many regular customers that buy from me every week. It's really humbling and amazing that people come back every week to enjoy my pasta," she says. "When you go from eating store-bought pasta to pasta that's fresh, it's just different."
Correction (Dec. 14, 2011): Melina's Fresh Pasta is available through (not sourced from) Carolina Grown and Papa Spuds.