Words by Luke Pyenson / Photographs by Michael Piazza
One of the great alliterative phrases in my orbit as I grew up was “pasta primavera.” Then, as now, I didn’t really know what this “spring pasta” referred to—just some sort of amalgamation of pasta, vegetables, and maybe a sauce. I don’t think I’ve ever had it. And I don’t know that I could tell someone where to get it in Boston, except a general wave of the hand towards the North End. If you are reading this publication, you probably already know that springtime is as good a season as any to enjoy pasta “primavera” or otherwise. Making your own fresh pasta is a fine way to spend an afternoon, but we’re lucky to have individuals in the area who have dedicated their lives to making it for us—and our city is better for it.
Though more and more people are interested in artisanal food products, handmade fresh pasta is nothing new in Boston. Albert Capone opened Capone Foods in Somerville in 1984 and has been manning the shop ever since, opening a second location in Cambridge six years ago. His family ran a food shop at Haymarket in the 1960s and 70s, where Capone learned the basics of pasta making from his mother and the business from his father. His parents were from Avellino, in the Campania region of southern Italy, about 35 miles inland from Naples. They immigrated to Argentina, and Capone grew up in Buenos Aires, eventually relocating to Watertown when he was 13. This is why one can find empanadas and chimichurri sauce lurking among Capone’s Italian products; one version of the popular fried pastry pockets is even stuffed with prosciutto!
Despite the forays into Argentine food, the focus here is on pasta, and Capone’s produces a panoply of shapes and flavors. One might wonder how some of these shapes could be produced by hand, and indeed Capone’s uses a machine called an extruder to form the more three-dimensional shapes like penne, rigatoni, and creste di gallo (cockscombs). In an extruder, flour and water are forced through a brass mold called a die, and flow out of the machine, waiting to be cut to the appropriate length by somebody patiently waiting at the other end with a knife (full disclosure: three to four days a week, I am that somebody at a restaurant in Cambridge). It is more common to see extruded shapes available dry; it is a treat to see them available fresh. Capone’s also offers the more common sheet pasta shapes, which are cut to order. Customers can choose from linguine, pappardelle, vermicelli, and fettucine, and flavors ranging from squid ink to saffron, which can even be mixed and matched. Finally, filled pastas are available in abundance, namely ravioli and tortellini. In spring, you might go for the spinach ravioli or the tri-color tortellini.
The store also offers an array of sauces, and Capone’s is happy to help people pair pasta shapes and flavors with the most complementary sauces. “[The] white clam sauce goes really well with the lemon linguine,” says Ashley Capone, one of Albert’s five daughters (all of whom have put in time at the shop), and “[the] Newburg sauce goes really well with the squid ink pasta.” Finding the right sauce for the rooster’s crests might be more of a challenge.
While Boston has a strong Italian identity, and certainly so does Al Capone, there is another name that has become almost synonymous with local pasta, and it’s not particularly Italian. We cannot discuss fresh pasta in this neck of the woods without discussing “Dave” and his popular eponymous Somerville storefront.
Dave Jick, the friendly, down-to-earth proprietor of Dave’s Fresh Pasta, says of his entrance to the pasta world, “I had the idea that I could maybe do this and I taught myself, I took a class, bought a machine, and did it out of my house,” admitting that he, “even sold some pasta to restaurants, sort of, quietly…” Years later, the fabulous reputation of his Davis Square shop is anything but quiet.
It’s not as if Dave was just starting from scratch. He worked in restaurants “all the way through college and after college,” experiencing everything from washing dishes to waiting tables to cooking. But pasta did not become part of the equation until later, when, he explains, “I just decided I was gonna do this.” “Making pasta is not actually rocket science,” Dave says in a way that is at once authoritative and calming; he perfected his dough recipes through trial and error. He started up a small, mostly wholesale pasta shop in Arlington in the early 1980s, and later a pasta café in Somerville; these two business preceded the current incarnation of Dave’s Fresh Pasta.
When Dave’s first opened in Davis Square, it was just a small store front selling fresh sheet pasta, cut into a variety of shapes to order, and few other retail items. This is still the pasta area of the now-expanded shop, where you can get different flavors of pasta (whole wheat, spinach, sun-dried tomato, for example) cut into shapes like pappardelle, spaghetti, and angel hair. The shop also makes fresh ravioli by hand, the flavors of which change seasonally. In the spring you encounter asparagus, sweet pea, or leek accented with mint and scallions and paired with sultry mascarpone cheese. The only adornments these need are a little brown butter or oil and some grated cheese. Dave uses half semolina and half durum wheat for most of his sheet pastas, but just durum for the ravioli dough, preferring a slightly softer texture. The shop doesn’t make extruded pastas, partially because they don’t have room for an extruding operation, but also because in Dave’s opinion, “you’re almost better off getting dried pasta, which is extruded pasta too, 98% of it.” To that end, Dave’s stocks dried shapes that have been tested and selected by Dave and his team.
Since opening, Dave has expanded the business significantly. He and his kitchen staff now make sauces to accompany their pasta, they cater and offer pasta making and other cooking classes, which are immensely popular and often sell out quite far in advance. Though Dave used to run them himself, he’s shifted the responsibilities to chef Jason Martin, who used to make pasta at the shop. The classes cover everything from the basics of egg pastas to risotto and gnocchi, sauces, and nights devoted to the cuisines of specific regions of Italy. A typical pasta-making class invariably ends with the consumption of the evening’s lesson, as well as a doggy bag to bring home.
Once you’ve got the fresh pasta, there are infinite directions to go in to dress it. Particular shapes are better suited to particular sauces, or traditionally eaten in Italy with certain vegetables in certain seasons. But Italian or not, the end result will always be satisfying—the guy making your pasta could be named Al Capone, he could just be named Dave, or you could tackle the job yourself and make some fresh pasta at home.
Luke Pyenson is a Boston-based food and travel writer. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix music blog, "On the Download."
Get the Recipes >>
Pasta all’ Uova (yellow egg pasta dough) By Dave’s Fresh Pasta
Ricotta Gnocchi By Albert Capone, Capone Foods
Spring Leek Ravioli By Jason Martin and Dave Jick, Dave’s Fresh Pasta