Inside Rafetto, New York’s Favorite Pasta Shop

In these series for T, author Reggie Nadelson revisits the New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from centuries-old eateries to underrated eateries.

There are those who think At Rafetto on West Houston Street as a kind monument to fresh pasta. “This store should be a designated landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” says one of its loyal customers, Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta, owner of East Village restaurant Il Posto Accanto. “Everything they make is divine: the pumpkin ravioli, the meat tortellini, the list is too long.” In addition to Il Posto Accanto, the store supplies Il Mulino, Patsy’s, Arturo’s Coal Oven Pizza and many more. “More than 200 restaurants and stores across the city and tri-state area,” says Andrew Raffetto, 59, owner of the store, who also sells to regular customers, along with his brother, Richard, 61.

The Raffetto, with its bright green canopy, has been in operation for over a century. In the 1960s, I walked by every day on the way to school, and it seems to me that it has not changed — although memory is a delicate thing and the store seems much more exotic to me. era, when fresh pasta was still a stranger. concept for most people, who got their spaghetti in a box or even a box. Yet it’s not all nostalgia. Rafetto’s continues to seduce. “When I first moved to town over a decade ago,” says one writer, “buying fresh pasta there was a treat.”

“The shop hasn’t changed much either, as far as me or my dad can remember,” says Sarah Raffetto, 32, who is part of the family’s fourth generation to work for the company, which has was founded by his great-grandfather. Marcello Raffetto, baker from Genoa. Like so many other immigrants, he put his skills to work doing what he knew best and established an eponymous pasta-making operation on Sullivan Street in 1906. Fourteen years later he moved it at its current location. near Macdougal Street. (A shrewd businessman, he bought the building in 1919 for around ten thousand dollars.)

The other week, when it was freezing and gray, I went to Raffetto, where the interior was warm, bright and filled with the scent of garlic and tomatoes. Sarah, wrapped in an apron, was in the kitchen at the back of the shop, stirring sauces – marinara, Alfredo, arrabbiata – simmering in large stainless steel pots and made mostly according to recipes created by her grandmother Romana , who began designing them for the store in the 1980s. “We make them all, and the ready meals, right here,” says Sarah, who is short, blonde, hot-headed and in love with food and culture. from his family. “Creating in my Italian heritage, in my favorite city in the world, is truly a gift.”

In the early days of the shop, when refrigeration was scarce, Raffetto mostly sold dry pasta, but not anymore. Rows of wooden drawers still hold dried pasta in all its forms, but at the front of the store, to the left, is a wall of shelves stocked with Italian groceries – olive oil, coffee, olives , tuna, tinned tomatoes – and to the right is a crate filled with fresh produce, including ready meals such as lasagna, broccoli rabe cavatelli, grilled vegetable pappardelle and sweet sausage and rice pudding tree. And then there’s the no-frills fresh pasta that Raffetto is famous for. Made daily at the company’s factory in New Jersey, which is overseen by Richard and one of his sons, it is not only driven to the store, but also shipped to other stores and restaurants around the city. tri-state area. It comes in the classic varieties (plain egg and spinach), sure, but over the past 40 or so years, as the staple has become a mainstay of gourmet cooking and the New York restaurant scene is increasingly dominated by Italian rather than French cuisine. , Raffetto’s adapted.

“People started asking for fancy flavors,” says Andrew. As a result, Raffetto’s sells pasta made with black squid ink, black pepper, parsley and basil, chestnut, saffron or even chocolate. “In the 80s, someone even asked me for peanut pasta. We did that too – we crushed peanuts into the dough. Similarly, the ravioli, kept in fridges or a freezer against the back wall of the shop, are no longer filled only with the traditional meat, spinach and cheese; there are varieties stuffed with lobster, black or white truffles, goat cheese, mushrooms and more. Some come in three sizes, and ahead of Valentine’s Day, there’s also a heart-shaped style.

In fact, you could call Raffetto the home of bespoke pasta. Customers can even have sheets cut from it while they wait – in five different ribbon widths – on a 1916 machine that the Raffetto family and their regulars call the guillotine. (He was once immortalized in a drawing by Maira Kalman in The New Yorker.) To demonstrate, Sarah, as a pizzaiola throws a pie, flips a large sheet of spinach dough on the clumsy old contraption. “It’ll cut any width you like,” she explains, finally setting it to quarter-inch tagliatelle. (Other popular requests include 8-inch linguine and three-inch fettuccine.)

When not in the kitchen, Sarah helps customers, greets neighbors and suggests sauce and pasta combinations. On this wintry day, people chat as they browse shelves, roll babies, learn about friends and relatives, and how local businesses are surviving the pandemic. A couple of tourists who have been walking around stare puzzled at what appears to be a party at a pasta shop.

Andrew and Sarah are deeply invested in the neighborhood. As a child, Andrew played basketball on the courts at the corner of West Houston and Sixth Avenue. “As I got older, I would stay out until one or two in the morning, and instead of coming home before work, I would just say, ‘It’s time to make the tortellini,'” recalls- he. Later, when he and Sarah’s mother separated, he raised Sarah in an apartment above the store, with help from her parents, who also lived in the building. Like Andrew, Sarah attended Our Lady of Pompeii School a few blocks away on Bleecker Street. “After school she would go to Caffe Dante on Macdougal for ice cream,” Andrew says. And now Dante, in his new incarnation as an award-winning cocktail and small plate purveyor, buys his pasta at Raffetto’s. “We used to make our own fresh pasta, but then we realized Raffetto’s was better in terms of quality and quantity,” says Linden Pride, co-owner of Dante with his wife, Nathalie Hudson. “Given that we are essentially on the same block and both companies have been in close proximity for 100 years, we are very proud to be able to support them.”

Although people often think of New York’s Italian Quarter as being further east and south, its last remaining blocks clustered around Mulberry and Grand, there was also an Italian community in Greenwich Village. In the early 20th century, small businesses boomed along West Houston, Bleecker, Carmine, and Sullivan streets. The families who lived in the old buildings all knew each other. The area was also the bohemian heart of Greenwich Village, where writers and artists discovered cheap Italian food in restaurants with candles in bottles of Chianti. The two worlds also met in old cafés like Le Figaro Café, on the corner of Bleecker and Macdougal.

Because she wants everyone to experience the world she grew up in, Sarah started a pop-up events and dinners company, Small pasta restaurant, in 2019 with his business partner, Emily Fedner. At least once a month, 24 ticket holders – “We sell out in about eight minutes,” says Fedner – meet at Rafetto, where a long table is set for dinner. The lights come on. The music continues. And the two women cook and serve Italian dishes, of course – sweet corn raviolo al uovo with brown butter, tagliarini cacio e pepe infused with black pepper and scampi with prawns – but Fedner, the daughter of a Russian Jewish family, adds also takes food from his own culture, which tends to include a generous amount of canned fish.

For my part, Raffetto cured me of a terrible illness that I rarely admit: I really don’t like to cook. I feel the pressure; I hear in my ear about twenty fussy pundits who say that everyone should be able to cook and, worse, that they have to take refuge in their joys. But this is New York. What’s wrong with takeout?

The following Saturday evening, as I often do now, I think of Sarah’s simple and reassuring instructions as I open the packets of gorgonzola and ravioli I picked up at Raffetto for dinner at home with friends: Just drop them straight from the freezer into a pan of boiling water: eight minutes. I do exactly that, then I bathe them in a little soft butter; it’s perfect. Then we share tubs of ice cream in two new flavors Sarah has concocted – one a rich chocolate seasoned with the oil used to make the Genoa toast that the stores also sell, the other a tribute to the cake with zucchini from his grandmother. Both are rich, creamy and a bit spicy, and for a few hours the voices in my head are thankfully quiet.

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