Sauce Fresh Off the Vine
at Valicenti Pasta Farm
By Tom Long / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
David Valicenti didn’t quite catch lightning in a bottle when he began selling his family’s pasta sauce at farmers’ markets, but it certainly lit the way to a new career for the former bicycle courier, punk rock drummer and chef de cuisine.
“It just sort of happened,” Valicenti said recently.
Valicenti is the proprietor of the eponymous “pasta farm” in Hollis. That’s where he and his staff bottle his famed Red Gravy, as well as other organic sauces. They also make upscale, homemade ravioli.
“I was lucky enough to be born into an Italian family with an outsized garden,” Valicenti said. “We grew a lot of vegetables and made everything from scratch. What we didn’t eat we put up for the winter.”
Valicenti, who described himself as a hyperactive kid, moved from Hollis to Boston in his youth and played drums in punk bands, supporting his musical career working as a bike courier and in various posts at local restaurants.
Eventually he found his way to New Orleans.
“I was attracted by the culture and the food was a very large part of that,” he said. “I thought I’d go and check it out and it was a special environment that just grabbed hold of me.”
He worked at Arnaud’s Restaurant, a fine-dining destination that has defined creole cuisine in many minds. Then he ran a small bistro named Martinique.
Valicenti said while he was in The Big Easy he bought a house and a boat and “turned into a real adult.”
He loved it. So why leave? One word, he said. “Katrina.”
After the 2005 hurricane devastated the city, he returned home to his family’s farm near Monument Square in Hollis. He also became chef de cuisine at Michael Timothy’s in Nashua.
“That was the only haute cuisine option at the time,” he said.
As he started working on a business plan to open his own restaurant in 2008, the economy crashed. “And I’m very grateful,” he said.
A glut of tomatoes on the family farm inspired him to begin jarring his family’s red gravy (the Italian-American saying for tomato sauce) and peddle it at a local harvest festival.
“It sold out,” he said. “So, I tried it again a second week at another location and it sold out. So, I bought labels and olive oil and decided to go out in the world. But I was a fine-dining chef; I was not thinking in terms of USDA and potentially hazardous foods and I couldn’t sell it.”
He re-grouped and converted the apple barn on the family farm into a commercial kitchen and started over.
“I bought some pasta machines at an auction, began making ravioli and the business took off like a rocket,” he said.
In addition to Red Gravy he now offers Golden Gravy, with butternut squash and parmigiana, and Alla Norma, with eggplant and ricotta salta cheese.
And since people don’t live by sauce alone, Valicenti Pasta Farm also makes a revolving selection of seasonal ravioli, including maple-roasted pumpkin and brie, caramelized butternut squash, ratatouille and chevre and brandied lobster, with gluten-free and vegetarian options.
Current selections and the upcoming farmers’ market schedule is posted on his website, gimmespaghetti.com.
“We have a good six acres of farmland we’ve reclaimed, and we’ve grown more and more stuff,” he said. At harvest time the fields are filled with vines of ripening tomatoes.
A majority of his sales are by direct marketing at farmers’ markets.
“We do about 35 a week in the summer and 10 or 11 in the winter, and that is still the vast majority of our sales,” he said.
He is hoping to get the ravioli into Whole Foods sometime in the spring.
In the offseason he has about a half-dozen full-time employees and a couple of part-time people and more than twice that in the summer when the garden is growing and the farmers’ markets are in full swing.
“A lot of people want to be farm-to-table and then they see the reality,” Valicenti said. “We are very fortunate that we have a farm and can grow our own produce, but we also network with local farmers for dairy, grain and herbs. Our products are organic, and it’s gratifying and it’s an extension of what I was doing as a kid.”