A Visit To Alfresco Pasta
July 8, 2010
The other day I had a pasta epiphany when I came home from the farmers market with a bag of Gorgonzola Walnut Agnolotti from Alfresco Pasta. It took a mere 4 minutes to cook at a gentle simmer, I drizzled a little butter and salt on top, served it with a salad and with the first bite, felt like I was eating at a gourmet restaurant in the privacy of my own home. It was so incredibly delicious. Rich creamy cheese, spinach flecked dough, all of the flavors subtle yet right up front. I could truly taste exactly what the package said I should be able to taste.
Chris Grissom is the mastermind behind all of the incredible sauces and ravioli fillings at Alfresco Pasta, the business he started about 10 years ago. It is a small company with a half dozen employees, including himself. But although they’re small, they pump out a lot of pasta. During the slower summer months they average about two to three thousand pounds a week and about ten thousand pounds when at peak capacity.
Until last year his company was strictly wholesale, supplying pasta to restaurants and hotels all across the southeast, with over 40 restaurants alone in the Nashville area. He has briefly dabbled in the retail side of things but found it too frustrating since “the retail guys are more concerned about shelf life even though the product doesn’t taste as good.” Let me explain. Alfresco Pasta flash freezes their products rather than pasteurizes them, a process that better retains the flavor and freshness. It’s one of the big differences you’re tasting when you make pasta at home versus what you get at a restaurant. But it is expensive to flash freeze since the product then has to stay frozen all the way from the truck it’s shipped on, to storage at the grocery store, and then it has to stay in the customers freezer until it is ready to be cooked. It is not a money maker if you look at it from the retail side of things. Which is why Chris sticks with chefs because “chefs want the highest quality and they’re willing to pay for it.”
I mentioned to him that every time I make pasta at home it never seems to taste even remotely like what I can get in a restaurant. And for someone who loves to cook, that just doesn’t seem fair. “The regular consumer has been duped by the retail market for years and they don’t have any idea,” he tells me. For instance, there is a tomato company based out of Southern California that makes the “best canned tomatoes of anywhere in the world” (and he’s not exaggerating, just try the marinara sauce and you’ll see). “They don’t make anything from concentrate, they pick ripe tomatoes and process them very minimally. They’re so good but you can’t buy them in any retail store because there’s no market for it. They make more selling to restaurants and chefs than they do selling to the retail guys. So the consumers don’t even get the good stuff like that, and that’s unfortunate. And it’s like that across the board with a lot of stuff.” But he says it’s starting to change with companies like Whole Foods that are educating people. And as is always the case, knowledge is power.
Last year Chris’s friend mentioned that he should try selling at the farmers market. So he did and now, because of that simple recommendation, we consumers finally have access to the best. Chris and his buddy Skip, along with a few other helpers, now do four farmers markets a week. The East and West Nashville markets along with one in Murfreesboro and Franklin. And unless you’re eating at one of the restaurants that is serving his pasta, the only way you can get it is if you buy it at one of those markets. Even better, Chris uses them to try out new creative ideas, one of his favorite parts of the job. “With the market we can come up with a lot more products because we know that we can sell them really easily and we can make small batches.” Products such as dessert ravioli. Like the Honey, Orange Zest, Ricotta ravioli I tasted that will be at the market next week, maybe even this weekend. And let me tell you, it tastes as good as it sounds. Boil it up, serve it with a scoop of ice cream and you’ve got yourself dessert.
They have also developed a gluten free pasta. Skip, the gregarious farmers market salesman, tells me that when they began selling at the markets people would ask if they had gluten free products. “At first we didn’t but then we developed them just for those folks because that’s what they really need. And they taste really good too.” How’s that for customer service?
As you begin to indulge in their pastas you’ll notice that they are simple, straightforward and delicious, in that fancy gourmet sort of way. It reminded me of a pizza guy I’d heard about in Portland, Oregon who has a strict rule allowing only three toppings per pizza. “You know what,” Chris says, “he’s right. And that’s what we like to do here. And that kind of cooking is actually more difficult to do because if you’ve only got three ingredients, they have to be perfect. The combination can’t be off.” So whenever he can, Chris sources as much as possible from local farmers. Their pork and beef comes from Peaceful Pastures because “her stuff is just so good” and next week they’ll be selling a roasted vegetable ravioli using local veggies from other market vendors.
And they have priced their product “to honor the customer.” Most of the raviolis cost $6 for a half pound which will feed two people perfectly for a nice meal at home. It is something people can buy each week and it takes less time to cook than it does to go get take out. And as Skip says, “you’re really getting a gourmet item for 6 bucks.” They also sell cut pasta, gnocchi and four different sauces; a bolognese, marinara, pesto and mushroom with roasted garlic. And they just developed a sage butter that will be available soon. But beware, they tell me that people who try their lobster ravioli get hooked. Forever. Perhaps it has something to do with the combination of Maine lobster, white truffles, sweet corn and shitake mushrooms. I’m not sure, but it sounds pretty perfect.