Rino Lanzillotti's Pasta Dreams Take Shape
Reviewed by MM Pack, Fri., Sept. 14, 2001
Bottega Della Pasta first crossed my radar screen a few years ago when the mailman delivered an intriguing postcard informing me that hand-rolled, red-and-white heart-shaped ravioli was available for purchase, Valentine's week only. As I'm a sucker for both ravioli and romance, I took myself to the address on the card to check it out.
What I found, unobtrusively nestled in a South Austin strip center, was the cutest little pasta manufactory imaginable. As you walk through the door, the perfunctory shop front morphs right into the scene of the action -- the long, wooden cutting tables, the refrigerator cases of freshly made pastas, the bins of semolina, the mixers, and the gleaming Italian-made pasta machines. And presiding over it all is the endlessly energetic and affable Pastaman himself, Rinaldo (Rino) Lanzillotti, chef and Texan by marriage, transplanted to Austin from Italy via London and San Antonio.
Since that day, and my first taste of the decadent Valentine ravioli, I've run into Lanzillotti's pastas all over town -- in the refrigerator cases of upscale food stores, on restaurant menus, at the Westlake Farmer's Market, and at local food festivals. When I asked recently if I could come talk to him about his business, Lanzillotti said, "Sure. If you want to talk about pasta, I never shut up."
He told me of his childhood pasta roots in Brindisi, Apulia, where he was born, and in Parabiago, north of Milan, where he grew up. "My family never went out to eat, except for pizza," he said. "We always sat together for a fresh meal at home, and we could cook better than any restaurant. Everybody in the family cooked, even my father. His specialty was fish soup."
Lanzillotti's mother made fresh pasta once a week. For dried pasta, he would go with his father to the pasta factory. "It was chaos there, people shouting out the numbers for the pasta they wanted. There were probably eight different types of spaghetti alone. People would buy 5 or 10 kilos of pasta at a time."
He explained that, because his mother worked, he helped look after two younger sisters. "I started cooking for them when I was about 8 years old. The first thing I learned was to make a soup with pasta in it."
Every summer, Lanzillotti visited his extended family in Apulia, where his grandfather and uncle worked farms near Brindisi. They raised wheat and animals, and made wine and ricotta and pecorino cheeses. "My grandmother baked bread in the neighbors' outdoor wood-fired oven," he recalled. "She made round dense loaves that weighed 2 kilos, and it was the best bread in the world. There were orange and fig trees, and we kids would pick wild capers that my aunt would cure in salt."
After finishing school, Lanzillotti worked in a local shoe factory and then studied to be a heavy-equipment machinist. But he missed country life, so he went to work on a dairy farm where he attended pregnant cows and weaned calves and practiced yoga with the other farm workers. At 24, he left Italy for good and moved to London, where he really got interested in food as a career.
As Lanzillotti tells it, "I was meeting people from all over the world, and I loved that lifestyle. I ate English food for the first time. Porridge, scones, it was all new to me. I ate Indian, Chinese, Turkish, and Brazilian food. I never knew before that beans could be black."
He began working in restaurant kitchens.
"In a fancy restaurant in St. John's Wood, I realized that good food just didn't have boundaries. I worked for a Bangladeshi chef who made fabulous French and Italian food for the Spanish owner of a continental restaurant in London."
He met his future wife Kim in London, and when she returned to her hometown of San Antonio in 1983, he came along. He cooked at L'Etoile under French chef Thierry Burkle before relocating to Austin in 1985, where he worked in several local establishments, including a stint as sous chef at Mezzaluna when it opened downtown.
Lanzillotti first considered the idea of making pasta professionally while at his next job in the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "We ordered pasta for the Hyatt banquets, and I thought it wasn't very good, so I started making it myself. That's when I realized that there was a demand for fresh pasta in Austin."
He'd already been thinking about his own business, but "I had to convince my wife that pasta was a feasible idea. So while I worked in restaurants, I took a six-month business course at ACC, and made a business plan. I made ravioli at home by hand (I could do 400 pieces in four hours) and sold all I could produce. So Kim got convinced."
Lanzillotti traveled to Italy in 1992 and brought back a laminated-pasta machine and a ravioli-making machine. Locally, he bought a broken, used pasta extruder that he completely rebuilt (that machinist training came in handy, after all). By 1993, Bottega Della Pasta was open at the South Congress location (4201 S. Congress, #101, 416-1114).
In 1996, Lanzillotti decided to concentrate on the wholesale end of the business. Since then, he provides fresh pasta to restaurants, clubs, hotels, and upscale groceries, including Central Market, Whole Foods Market, and the Headliners Club. Through distributors, he also sells in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. "However," he told me, "my retail customers never stopped knocking on the door, and I can't say no."
When asked about future plans, Lanzillotti shrugs characteristically and says, "I'm not looking to expand right now. I'd have to get into pasteurizing and drying pasta, and I don't want to do that. My goal was to produce fresh pasta the old-fashioned way -- handmade and affordable. I've reached that goal and I'm happy. What's fun for me is handling pasta every day, and staying close to its warmth and texture. You know, if you don't touch it and it's made totally by machines, pasta loses its personality."