The Marriott Wardman Park Hotel is on the phone, wanting 300 pounds of mushroom ravioli. Ridgewells Caterers is looking for ravioli stuffed with Asiago and goat cheeses and mushrooms. A Georgetown restaurant, which doesn't want to be identified for this article, is asking for 100 pounds of squid ink ravioli stuffed with lobster.
On the other end of the line is a pastamaker, either Alexis Konownitzine or Henrique Cogo, fielding calls in an unassuming blond-brick warehouse in Silver Spring that houses La Pasta Inc., a pasta plant the size of a high school gym.
Machines whir. Men in white, their heads bonneted and hands gloved, gently coax ravioli onto trays, weigh nests of linguine or scoop up platters of knotted tortellini. A fine flour dust powders everything. Cogo and Konownitzine, their men and their marvelous machines are cranking out literally tons of the pasta that Washingtonians will devour.
Maybe it's on your plate at your favorite Italian restaurant. Or maybe it's in a sealed package at a local gourmet store or supermarket. Or maybe it's packaged with a sauce and sold as a ready-to-go entree. The pasta pops up in a lot of places in the Washington area.
"I use over 100 pounds a day for original creations or to sell off the shelf," says chef Manoch Nampha of the Giant Gourmet Something Special in McLean. "I can't keep up with the demand for chipotle linguine. . . . On Halloween, I called up [La Pasta] and asked them to do something special, and they made this bright orange pumpkin squid-ink pasta; on Valentine's Day, it was a heart-shaped ravioli."
On a typical Monday, La Pasta makes 1,000 pounds of fettuccine and linguine. On Tuesday and Wednesday the staff gears up the tortellini and ravioli machines, cutting more than 3,000 pounds of variously flavored, shaped and filled ravioli, tortellini and gnocchi. Thursday is the busiest day. Delivery trucks are loaded between 5 and 6 a.m. and the marvelous machines are tuned up for the first of two production shifts, which finally end about 10 p.m.
One week it might be a flurry of orders from local country clubs or a rush job for an airline that is experimenting with pasta entrees for its passengers. Other weeks it is filling standard orders, such as the 300 pounds of assorted ravioli that Capitol Hill customers scarf up at Jorge Canales' Eastern Market Grocery. Friday is machine maintenance and cleanup day--and delivery day for the weekend restaurant rush.
Prices for these specialty pastas vary as widely as their shapes and colors, ranging from simple flat noodles (about $3 per pound) to exotic stuffed triangles (as much as $20 per pound). La Pasta works closely with chefs all over the city to create specialty items. Last holiday season, Sutton Place and La Pasta devised a cabernet gnocchi, which included a reduction of red wine as part of the flavoring.
"Hotels often call in a panic. Maybe the menu changed at the last minute or someone forgot to order a crucial ingredient," said Konownitzine. "The panic calls are stressful, even horrible. But if we can find the ingredients, we'll do it."
Part of La Pasta's success can be attributed to America's love affair with everything Italian. But just as important, if less romantic, is the increased attention paid to the bottom line by restaurant owners, gourmet grocers and caterers. Making pasta in three colors or creating a ravioli filling with four or five ingredients is complicated and time-consuming. Restaurant and hotel kitchens often are hot and cramped--not ideal places to crank out pasta in volume or to house the kind of machinery that eases the work flow at La Pasta.
"Everyone is talking about food costs," said Konownitzine. "More and more, chefs have to be conscious of that too. . . . Their jobs may be on the line."
David Keener, executive chef at Ridgewells, says he buys a variety of seasonal ravioli and uses three different flavors in a chilled and molded ravioli terrine. Keener likes to turn to La Pasta because "the product is as good as if I made it myself. . . . Knowing I can count on quality pasta frees me to concentrate on making something creative with it."
"Mr. Outside" and "Mr. Inside" is how Konownitzine and Cogo refer to themselves. Konownitzine handles front-office business, working on sales, fielding last-minute panic calls from clients and dealing with clients. Cogo, a mechanical engineer by training, prefers to massage the machines. "The machines are a little moody, like their Italian makers," he says while overseeing production of "the product" in the big room.
And what a product it is. Traditionalists might be aghast at the array of shapes, stripes and flavors: shrimp and lobster ravioli with saffron-flavored dough and squid-ink stripes; spinach and cheese half-moons of agnolotti; triangular pumpkin panzotti with sage stripes; red, white and blue ravioli flags for Independence Day; potato and butternut squash gnocchi; beet ravioli for Valentine's Day; curry turmeric tagliatelle, tomato-basil lasagna sheets and miles of flat pasta.
On cooking the colors intensify. The green spinach-striped ravioli become a wonderful spring chartreuse, the green stripe freckled with basil and accentuating the mild goat cheese inside.
"Italians aren't stripe-crazy like Americans. But then no one here is really Italian," said Konownitzine, who comes from Argentina and spent several years in the restaurant business in Spain and Holland before landing in the District 14 years ago. "Stripe or no stripe. That is not the question. It is not important. On one level, it's a gimmick. Italian fusion food. What's inside is important. We feel that if we do the stuffing with love and care, we will make a favorable impression."
Both partners grew up in South America in cities with "huge Italian populations" and both revere that cuisine. Cogo's great-grandparents emigrated to Brazil from Milan before World War I and kept traditional cooking alive in the family.
When La Pasta moved to Pittman Drive in Silver Spring 3 1/2 years ago from its former home on M Street in Georgetown, it gained 10,000 square feet, which Cogo reconfigured into front offices, production space and storage. Now he fantasizes about adding a workshop so he can tinker with the machinery without incurring the chefs' wrath. "I'm constantly thinking of modifications," he says gesturing at a jumble of crates, tools and broken parts, "so the machines will be faster and easier for employees to use." But, in the end, it's not machines that take up so much room but freezers and storage, he says.
That's because one week's production easily gobbles up 1,000 pound of grated cheese. Durum, semolina and rice flours and cornmeal arrive by the truckload. Hard Romano and Parmesan cheeses come in huge pallets from Baltimore's Little Italy. Whipped and low-moisture ricotta are shipped from New Jersey, mushrooms and goat cheese from Pennsylvania. And to package the final product, the company buys 15,000 cardboard boxes at a clip.
Thursday the ravioli machines never stop except to change die shapes. At one machine, Juan Rodriquez stuffs a spinach-flavored dough into a huge funnel. Below, in a rhythmic dance, four sets of magic metal fingers twist the dough into ring-sized tortellini and drop them onto a metal sheet; at another machine, a worker threads together three colored ribbons of dough until the die grabs and presses them into a tricolor triangle with a sun-dried tomato and goat cheese interior.
At another machine called the laminator, one worker expertly guides mushroom dough through two giant rollers. Adjusting moisture content and gradually tightening the squeeze, he rethreads the dough until a sheet with the proper thickness emerges. Resembling caramel-colored bathroom rugs, these pungent porcini-flavored pasta sheets will be transformed down the line into linguine, ravioli stripes or lasagna noodles. One laminator can roll and flatten 250 pounds of dough an hour.
As each variety of pasta is cut, it rests briefly, is cooled to 40 degrees in a special freezer and then is vacuumed-packed on an assembly line.
Konownitzine says La Pasta encourages input from chefs all over the city. "Sometimes they will fax us a recipe for a special seasonal noodle or a ravioli filling and we will take it from there." On occasion, the company will send its refrigerated van to pick up a filling prepared by a catering firm or client restaurant.
This willingness to accommodate seems to be paying off. Sutton Place Gourmet used to make its own pasta products but now works with La Pasta chefs Herbert Kerschbaumer and Julio Yancez to create seasonal items, which are then marketed under the Sutton Place Gourmet label.
"We want something unique to our stores," said Lisa Simenauer, restaurant and development chef for Sutton Place. "We might want a wild mushroom ravioli, so we tell La Pasta which four mushrooms to use. Sometimes we give them recipes rather than just the flavor specs," she said, adding that a new product often goes through six or more tastings before gaining final approval.
Simenauer says this kind of collaboration allows Sutton's in-house chefs to concentrate on sauces. "We can then incorporate the pasta product into a complete entree, not just a stand-alone."
La Pasta's Kerschbaumer literally has gone that extra mile to make clients happy. When it became apparent that traditional goat cheeses weren't working as a ravioli filling, he made several trips to John Marshall's High Field Dairy in Pennsylvania. Together, the duo developed a goat cheese with a special consistency that holds flavor and oozes less moisture.
Now Kerschbaumer, a native of Switzerland, is working on a vegan pasta with some local vendors who want to appeal to vegetarians.
Despite the tastiness, versatility and sheer fun of these new products, some establishments, like Filomena Ristorante of Georgetown, believe in sticking with tradition. For nearly 14 years two sisters-in-law from Italy's Abruzzi region have hand-rolled pasta in the restaurant's front window.
And it's not just a gimmick, according to owner Joan Filomena. At first, the "pasta mamas" as they are affectionately known, "just made all our gnocchi. Now we make all the pasta we use in-house--except tubular shaped ones," she said.
Filomena says Americans' craving for pasta has made industrial outlets like La Pasta not only possible but necessary. "Fifteen years ago, only Italian family restaurants had pasta on their menus. Now everyone has at least a few pasta entrees if they are smart."
La Pasta Inc., 2727 Pittman Dr., Silver Spring. Call 301-588-1111. La Pasta's business is primarily to restaurants and markets; it will not accept orders of less than 30 pounds of pasta. Those wishing smaller orders should contact local retailers (see box at left), to see what types of pastas are available and have the stores hold the pasta on reserve.
Joan McQueeney Mitric, a Washington writer, last wrote for the Food section about entertaining during our January ice storm.
Where You Can Buy La Pasta's Colorful Products
La Pasta Inc. products are available at several area locations. Typically, these fresh pastas cook in four or five minutes when dropped into boiling water, which makes them perfect for summer meals. The flavorful and colorful pastas work best this time of year with a light sauce made from tomatoes, seafood, herbs or vegetables, or simply olive oil and a good Parmesan.
* The Eastern Market Grocery (225 Seventh St. SE, call 202-547-6480) packages and sells under its own label about 12 different raviolis and 15 flavors of flat pastas made by La Pasta. Selection varies with the season, but the smoked salmon and chive ravioli, the tomato-basil-smoked mozzarella ravioli and the spinach gnocchi are among the most popular. Owner Jorge Canales said he orders fresh pasta each day and will reserve items for large and small dinner parties provided customers call ahead.
* The Giant Gourmet Someplace Special (1445 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean, call 703-448-0800) uses La Pasta products at its Something Special delicatessen and catering service. Chef Manoch Nampha says the asparagus-Gorgonzola pasta salad and the chipotle linguine are "very hot" items. The delicatessen also uses La Pasta's pesto sauces (sun-dried tomato and basil) in its sandwiches.
* Neam's of Georgetown (3217 P St. NW, call 202-338-4694) carries a small selection of La Pasta products. Call first for availability.
* Sutton Place Gourmet (several locations throughout the Washington area) offers a variety of La Pasta products including many that they develop with La Pasta and then customize for their stores under the Sutton Place label. Call first if you are looking for a particular pasta.
* Fresh Fields (several area locations) sells a variety of La Pasta products. A recent survey of the store at 4530 40th St. NW found a variety of 12-ounce containers ranging in price from $3.49 for tricolor linguine (beet, spinach and white) to $7.99 for the sun-dried tomato pesto ravioli and the wild mushroom ravioli.
* Dean & Deluca in Georgetown (3276 M St. NW, call 202-342-2500) sells about 10 different La Pasta ravioli in assorted weights under its own label, according to Paul Flecnoe, assistant manager of cheese and charcuterie. "We used to make our own fillings and have them package them, but now we work with them on recipes or use their fillings."
Popular items in D&D's weekly order are potato and spinach gnocchi, five-cheese ravioli, black bean and goat cheese ravioli, spinach and Gorgonzola ravioli, sun-dried tomato ravioli, wild mushroom ravioli and occasionally lemon-black pepper or egg tagliatelle. Prices range from $6 to $23 per pound.
CAPTION: At La Pasta Inc., dough merges into stripes, is filled and cut into ravioli as it travels through a pasta-making machine.
CAPTION: A universe of pasta shapes and colors seen in restaurants, hotels, caterers' spreads and specialty markets all around town comes from La Pasta Inc. At right, owners Alexis Konownitzine, left, and Henrique Cogo demonstrate how the pasta dough is forced through one of the pasta-making machines at their Silver Spring factory.