Last week, a relative calm eased into the kitchen of Melina's Fresh Pasta. It's a stark contrast to the grand-opening buzz of the new store a few weeks earlier. Owner and pasta maker Carmella Alvaro is enjoying a rare day off. But as she sits at a cleared-off work table sharing tales of how she got her start as a pasta maker, it's easy to imagine the mixers churning, pasta cutting machines whirring, and an entire staff diligently shredding mushrooms and zesting lemons for ravioli fillings.
"I think being the daughter of immigrants, [my parents] always wanted to see the next generation go from doing hard labor, like this, to maybe an office job," she says as she gestures toward the pasta-making machines outfitting her new production space and shop.
Like many first-generation Americans, Alvaro has childhood memories that revolve around food traditions that followed her parents from their native Calabria, Italy, to their adopted hometown of Syracuse, New York.
"My dad still gardens. They make wine, they make bread, they cure meats; they do everything that the hipsters are doing now but before it was cool," says Alvaro, laughing. "I grew up in that environment where you make your own food, where food is important, and eating dinner together is important."
Honoring these traditions, Alvaro opened Melina's Fresh Pasta in 2010. She started by delivering a few coolers of ravioli and gnocchi to Triangle-area farmers markets, then expanded to retail distribution with Weaver Street Market in 2013 and to select Whole Foods in 2015. On December 2, she finally opened a brick-and-mortar location just past Durham's Lakewood neighborhood.
It wasn't a straight shot from canning tomato sauce to creating a signature lemon ricotta ravioli. After graduating with a degree in political science from Colgate University, Alvaro lived in Washington, D.C., for twelve years before moving to Raleigh. She was working a sales and marketing job (likely for her parents' approval)—and completely bored. For a mental break, she packed her bags for Italy to attend pasta-making school.
"The guy from Master of None stole my idea!" she says, referencing Aziz Ansari's Netflix show in which his character leaves New York City to make pasta in Italy and clear his head.
At Bluone, a family-owned, Bologna-based food tour company and cooking school, Alvaro learned to make sfoglia, traditional fresh egg pasta. Once she mastered the dough, her teacher Francesca taught her to roll it out using a mattarello, which is the pasta rolling pin that now hangs next to the menu board at Melina's Fresh Pasta. Alvaro also learned how to hand-shape pasta like bow-tie-shaped farfalle and tubular garganelli, photos of which flank the menu's other side. Her handmade pasta repertoire expanded to include traditional lasagna Bolognese, gnocchi, ravioli, and tortellini, a regional specialty typically served en brodo (in broth).
"I was a little mortified when she took out the beef tongue to make the broth to serve the tortellini in. It was very traditional!" she says. But the experience—beef tongue notwithstanding—turned out to be about more than making pasta.
"It started out as very transactional—'I'm going to pay you to teach me to make pasta'—and it turned into a friendship," Alvaro says. "They [the Tori family: Raffaella, Marcello, and Francesca] took me in for a week where it was just me and their family. They became my mentors."
When Marcello drove her to the train station at the end of the week, he revealed that everyone thought he was crazy for starting a food and travel business. Alvaro recalls him saying, "I shouldn't listen to anybody [who] tells me not to start a food business; if I want to do it, I should do it."
A seed was planted. Alvaro returned to her sales and marketing job in Raleigh and continued making pasta as a hobby. In 2010, she started selling small quantities of her artisanal pasta at the Wake Forest farmers market and at the Carrboro market by the following spring. Around this time, she received a phone call from a Charleston-based pasta maker who was retiring and wanted to sell his equipment. Alvaro politely declined, explaining that she wanted to make pasta by hand.
But when she made her Carrboro market debut and sold out of the pasta it had taken her one week to make—in one hour! —she quickly changed her mind. Even though the machines expedited part of the pasta-making process, Alvaro officially quit her job in 2012 to focus on making pasta full-time.
She eventually outgrew the detached garage turned commercial kitchen at her North Durham home. She held out for the light-flooded space on Chapel Hill Road.
Melina's Fresh Pasta Shop's open floor plan and expanded production area allows each piece of equipment—including a 300-pound mixer—to have its own place; storage for industrial-size cans of San Marzano-style tomatoes and fifty-pound sacks of durum and semolina flours; and a small staff lounge. The improved work flow also allows Alvaro to create new ravioli fillings, like Southwestern-inspired black bean or goat cheese-and-honey, which are available for purchase from the shop's modest retail space along with the full range of cut and stuffed pastas, sauces, and take-and-bake meals. The open floor plan also allows room for hosting tours, pasta-making classes, and monthly tastings.
Alvaro's business has come a long way over the last seven years, but she hasn't forgotten her roots. She fondly recounts how her family devoted several days every August to pick bushels of tomatoes and can tomato sauce for the year ahead. "I think I was only allowed to put the basil in the jar. I wasn't allowed to do anything else!" she says. Now she's responsible for making about seventy pints of fresh tomato basil sauce every week to sell alongside her pastas or layer into baked pasta dishes.
So, what do her parents make of all this? "They're excited," Alvaro says. "I think maybe it was their influence that caused this, watching them entertain and feed everyone my whole life. We're all doing things to help people; my brother is a fire captain; my sister runs a hospital lab; and I feed people."