Local Pasta Makers Valicenti Organico of Hollis, NH
Turning ideas into ravioli
It all started with a bumper crop of tomatoes in Dave Valicenti’s backyard garden in Hollis. “I convinced Michelle we should make a nice Italian ‘gravy’ out of that harvest and all three hundred or so of those jars were quickly sold.” What began as a date night in 2007 has blossomed into a full-time affair of the heart. The couple, now married, sells more than 100,000 jars of Valicenti Organico “Red Gravy” at farmers markets and their side dish of pasta-making has grown even more.
Dave met Michelle at Michael Timothy’s Bistro & Wine Bar in downtown Nashua. He was chef de cuisine and she was the head pastry chef. (Her chocolate dessert was on the February 2007 cover of New Hampshire Magazine.) Now, with their own business, they use those skills to bring savory fillings and flavorful pastas to life.
Their “downtown” Hollis location is key. Dave grew up in the white Colonial on Monument Square. A very agricultural town, Hollis is surrounded by farmland and even the historic district is still laced with agricultural greenery. After a stint in New Orleans at a locally beloved restaurant in an uptown district, he returned home.
Having a garden and “putting away” the harvest was a way of life for Dave as a child. He remembers the lessons taught by Uncle Peter of Sicilian descent, who taught him how to cook and inspired the love of creating great-tasting food from vegetables grown in the backyard garden. “I learned from the Italian tradition,” says Dave. “Make the stuff from what you grow.”
It’s the same today. Valicenti Organico’s Red Gravy is truly a farmstead product. All the basil and tomatoes in the sauce are grown on several cultivated acres on the property. Tomato varieties include San Marzano types, Monica Paste and Bell Star, a dense and sweet globe tomato. As if the tomatoes, picked at the hight of ripeness, aren’t sweet enough, each kettle of sauce contains about four bottles of Marsala — hah, that’s the Sicilian touch.
I visited the “farm” one warm afternoon. The aroma of bubbling sauce was venting out through a window in the former barn, now the production facility. A huge cauldron of tomato “gravy” inside was simmering and had been on the burner overnight. It was quickly put up in a hot pack method by simply filling the jar, capping it and then flipping it over. Dave says, “It’s like music to my ears to hear those lids snapping, sealing in the freshness as they cool."
But there was much more than “putting away” red gravy that afternoon. The warren of rooms built into the old barn were alive with a handful of employees stacking wheat flour, mixing ravioli fillings, filling and cutting ravioli, plus extruding pastas in a variety of shapes.
The ravioli machine rolls, fills and cuts ravioli in a swift manner.
By Susan Laughlin
Dave and Michelle have dreamed up about 50 recipes for ravioli fillings, from squid ink to a multi-grain with Swiss chard and ricotta. And most of the vegetable ingredients are from their farm or local farms. Local cheeses and other dairy from Brookford Farm in Canterbury are in the mix too. Brookford also provides a measure of the flours used in the pasta doughs to enhance the “localness” of this local operation. Actually, it’s mind-blowing to consider all the local roots of this ravioli. Hard cheeses in ravioli fillings are the exception. They are Italian.
Pastas are extruded in a variety of shapes from flat linguini to twisty gemelli. In many of the flavored varieties, the water is replaced with beet juice or other vegetable juice to embed flavor. Farro, an ancient grain high in protein and low in gluten, is offered as a heathy option. A few gluten-free varieties are available too, but Michelle admits they are more challenging to make. With all the varieties and variations, the Valicenti Organico pastas and raviolis have become a larger operation than the original Red Gravy product. Dave says after they bought the pasta machines at auction from the defunct Amato’s in Amherst, they instantly became “pasta people.”
Distribution is largely done by direct sales at farmers markets. Dave says, “It may be a bit of a cumbersome method, but I get to meet the customers and hear their feedback. There’s nothing like the sound of 20 adults swooning over your product. It’s similar to the best part of being a restaurant chef — when someone comes back to compliment you about the special they just enjoyed. It’s just nice to hear.”
Several acres of tomatoes are planted every year surrounding the production barn at Valicenti Organico.
By Susan Laughlin
Though farming could be considered a seasonal operation, products roll out the door year-round. The tomatoes are mostly harvested in September — quickly harvested, puréed and put into five-gallon containers and frozen. Then, throughout the year, the purée is available to make the sauce. Same with the pastas and raviolis. As they are packed they are frozen, keeping them available for distribution the next day or next week. Since only about six or seven varieties are made each week, the freezing helps build inventory so that about 15 varieties are available at any given time.
For the fall, the couple plans to make a butternut squash sauce seasoned with savory herbs and maybe a bit of Marsala and Parmigiano, perfect for serving over the linguini. Other fall customer favorites include the butternut squash and pear prosciutto raviolis.
Dave wants to grow and hopefully see a retail outlet in Portsmouth or Cambridge next year. “We could make the raviolis on-site, offer take-home meals, and Michelle would be able to create her signature pastries and breads. Whenever we bring her bread to a farmers market, it’s gone by 10 a.m.”
Dave admits running a business is hard work, especially when you grow your own ingredients and Mother Nature is involved. But he remembers what his mother said: “If owning your own business was easy, everybody would do it.” But there is the good side too. Before shrieking upon seeing there’s no more jarred sauce left on the shelf, he quickly remembers, “Oh yeah, that’s the point.”