In this series for T, author Reggie Nadelson visits New York institutions that have been cool for decades, from time-honoured restaurants to unsung dives.
There are those who regard Raffetto’s on West Houston Street as a sort of monument to fresh pasta. “That store should be a designated landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” says one of the devoted customers, Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta, who owns the East Village restaurant Il Posto Accanto. “Everything they prepare is divine: the pumpkin ravioli, the beef 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 others. “Over 200 restaurants and shops in the city and the Tristate area,” said Andrew Raffetto, 59, owner of the store, which also sells to regular customers, along with his brother Richard, 61.
Raffetto’s, with its bright green canopy, has been around for over a century. I passed it every day on my way to school in the 1960s, and it seems to me it has remained unchanged – although memory is a tricky thing and the store felt much more exotic to me back then, when fresh pasta was still a foreign concept for most people, who got their spaghetti from a box or even a can. It’s not all nostalgia though. Rafetto’s continues to seduce. “When I first moved to the city more than a decade ago,” says one writer, “buying fresh pasta there was a special treat.”
“The store hasn’t changed much, as far as I or my father can remember,” said Sarah Raffetto, 32, part of the fourth generation of the family who works for the company, which was founded by her great-grandfather Marcello Raffetto, a baker. who is originally from Genoa. Like so many other immigrants, he put his skills to work doing what he knew best and set up a pasta factory of the same name on Sullivan Street in 1906. Fourteen years later, he moved it to its current location near Macdougal Street. (As a shrewd businessman, he bought the building in 1919 for about ten thousand dollars.)
The other week, when it was freezing cold and gray outside, I walked to Raffetto’s, where the inside was warm and bright and filled with the smell of garlic and tomatoes. Wrapped in an apron, Sarah was in the kitchen at the back of the store stirring sauces — marinara, alfredo, arrabbiata — simmering in large stainless steel pots and usually made from recipes created by her grandmother Romana, which she began inventing for the store in the 1980s. “We make them all, as well as the prepared foods, here,” says Sarah, who is petite, blonde, lavish and in love with food and her family’s culture. “Creating within my Italian heritage, in my favorite city in the world, is a real gift.”
In the early days of the store, when refrigeration was rare, Raffetto’s mainly sold dried pasta, but not anymore. Rows of wooden drawers still hold dried pasta in every shape, but in front of the shop, on the left, is a wall of shelves filled with Italian groceries – olive oil, coffee, olives, tuna, canned tomatoes – and on the right is a suitcase filled with refrigerated products, including prepared dishes such as lasagna, cavatelli with broccoli rabe, pappardelle with grilled vegetables and sweet sausage, and arborio rice pudding. And then there’s the unadorned fresh pasta that Raffetto’s is famous for. Made every day at the company’s New Jersey factory, 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 in the Tristate area. It comes in the classic varieties, of course (plain egg and spinach), but over the past 40 years or so, the staple has become a mainstay of gourmet cuisine and New York’s restaurant scene is increasingly dominated by Italian food rather than French. modified Raftetto’s.
“People started asking for fancy flavors,” Andrew says. As a result, Raffetto’s sells pasta made with black squid ink, black pepper, parsley and basil, chestnut, saffron, and even chocolate. “In the ’80s,” he continues, “someone even asked me for peanut butter. We did it too – we crushed peanuts into the dough.” Likewise, the ravioli, kept in refrigerators or a freezer against the back wall of the store, are no longer filled with just the traditional meat, spinach and cheese; there are variants filled with lobster, black or white truffles, goat cheese, mushrooms and more. Some come in three sizes and for Valentine’s Day, there is also a heart-shaped style.
In fact, you could call Raffetto’s the home of custom pasta. Customers can even have sheets cut from it while they wait — in five different widths of ribbon — on a machine dating back to 1916 that the Raffetto family and regulars call the guillotine. (It was once immortalized in a drawing by Maira Kalman in The New Yorker.) To demonstrate, Sarah, as a pizzaiola throwing a pie turns a big sheet of spinach dough on the clunky old thing. “It cuts any width you want,” she explains eventually setting it to a quarter-inch tagliatelle. (Other popular requests include eighth-inch linguine and three-eight-inch fettuccine.)
When not in the kitchen, Sarah is on the front line helping customers, greeting neighbors, and suggesting sauce and pasta combinations. On this wintry day, people are chatting as they browse the shelves, bring in babies, ask questions of friends and relatives and how local businesses are surviving the pandemic. A few tourists who have walked in look in amazement at what appears to be a party in a pasta shop.
Both Andrew and Sarah are very involved in the neighborhood. As a boy, Andrew played basketball on the courts on 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 going home for work, I just said, ‘Time to make tortellini,’” he recalls. Later, when he and Sarah’s mother separated, he raised Sarah in an apartment above the store, with help from his 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 went to Caffe Dante on Macdougal for an ice cream,” Andrew says. And now Dante, in his new incarnation as an award-winning cocktail and small plate supplier, buys his pasta at Raffetto’s. “We used to make our own fresh pasta, but then we realized Raffetto’s was better both qualitatively and quantitatively,” says Linden Pride, who co-owns Dante with his wife Nathalie Hudson. “Since we’re essentially on the same block and both companies have been around for 100 years, we’re very proud to be able to support them.”
While people often think that New York’s Italian Quarter is further east and south, with the last remaining blocks around Mulberry and Grand, there was also an Italianate community in Greenwich Village. In the early 1900s, small businesses thrived along West Houston, Bleecker, Carmine, and Sullivan streets. Families living there in the old tenements all knew each other. The area was also the bohemian heart of Greenwich Village, where writers and artists discovered inexpensive Italian food at restaurants with Chianti bottled candles. The two worlds also met in the old coffee houses like Le Figaro Cafe, on the corner of Bleecker and Macdougal.
Wanting everyone to experience the world she grew up in, Sarah founded an event and pop-up dinner company, Petite Pasta Joint, with her business partner Emily Fedner in 2019. At least once a month, 24 cardholders — “We sell out in about eight minutes,” Fedner says — find themselves at Raffetto’s, where a long table is set for dinner. The lights come on. The music continues. And the two women, of course, cook and serve Italian dishes — sweet corn raviolo al uovo in brown butter, black pepper tagliarini cacio e pepe and shrimp scampi — but Fedner, the daughter of a Russian-Jewish family, also adds the food. its own culture, which usually contains a generous amount of preserved fish.
For my part, Raffetto’s has cured me of a terrible ailment that I rarely admit: I really don’t like cooking. I feel the pressure; I hear in my ear about twenty picky experts who say that everyone should be able to cook and, worse, that you should resort to his pleasures. But this is New York. What’s wrong with takeout?
The following Saturday night, as I often do now, I think of Sarah’s reassuringly simple instructions as I open the packets of gorgonzola and ravioli I picked up at Raffetto’s for dinner at home with friends: “Just leave them boiling straight from the freezer in a pot.” water: eight minutes.” I do just that and then bathe them in a little sweet butter, it’s perfect, then we share tubs of ice cream in two new flavors that Sarah has come up with – a rich chocolate spiced with the oil used to make the Genoa toast that the shops also sell, the other a tribute to her grandmother’s zucchini cake.Both are rich, creamy and a little spicy, and for a few hours the voices in my head are happily quiet.