Pasta Sisters opened in Los Angeles in 2014 as an Italian deli, primarily making gnocchi and pasta for other restaurants. They grew organically at first, but an unexpected phone call skyrocketed them into popularity and almost derailed their success. Giorgia, daughter of chef Paola, talks about their family’s journey to a second, larger restaurant.
What was your first memory of food growing up?
When I think about food, I think family. It’s typical as a kid in Italy to cook. We’d sit on the kitchen counter, doing homework while mom cooked. You saw you’re connected with food since the beginning of your life. You smell, taste, steal pieces of food while mom is cooking.
Bolognese is my favorite Pasta Sisters sauce because of the flavor, but also because it reminds me of our Sundays when my mom and aunt cooked together and set up the kids’ table with all the cousins. I’d always ask my aunt for an extra bowl of Bolognese next to my plate of pasta.
I also remember my whole family got together during Carnevale and my grandmother made Frittelle, fried dough, in this huge pot for the laundry because there were so many of us.
There is a wide range of Italian food in every region. Can you talk about how Pasta Sisters fits in?
I think it’s important to be open-minded with Italian food. A typical example is lasagna. Every region, town, sometimes family makes lasagna a different way. Food is what you like, so you make things that way. Some people put mozzarella, some put béchamel, some put ricotta, some put eggs, you can put whatever you want – but it has the same name, lasagna. My mom and aunt grew up cooking with the same mother and have different recipes for the same dish. That’s the beauty of cooking.
Tell me more about your mom, Paola and her role as chef at Pasta Sisters.
Everything you see on our menu is what she cooks at home. I like to say my mom is not a chef. She is a mom that cooks. She was a teacher and never worked in a kitchen before opening Pasta Sisters.
The most difficult part for her was making a recipe for 4 into a recipe for 400. She knows how to make Bolognese at home, but when she needed to use a 40-pound pot, it was different. She’s very picky, so until she finds the right taste from home, she’s not happy.
Why did your family decide to open the restaurant?
We never decided to open a restaurant! One of my friends owns a restaurant in West Hollywood. After trying the gnocchi there, I made a weird face. She asked, “What’s wrong?” I said “I think they’re not gnocchi. I don’t recognize them.” She asked if I knew a better brand. I said, I only eat my mom’s gnocchi, so she asked to try it. My mom made her gnocchi, I brought it to her and she was amazed, so we started making gnocchi for her restaurant. At that time I was attending school. My mom was nannying during the day, and we met up in the evening to make gnocchi until late, then delivered it to the restaurant in the morning. At the same time my mom started cooking for the kids she was nannying. The parents came home, smelled her food and tried it. They were impressed and hired her for private dinners with their friends. That’s how her cooking career started.
At that point, my brother who has more of a manager’s mind thought we could do something more. Since we were producing so much gnocchi, we didn’t have enough space at home anymore.
We looked for a little shop near where we lived and found the Pico location. Our plan was to make pasta and gnocchi for restaurants and markets, just using the kitchen, but the landlord required us to have a front of the house. We created a small menu which included the sauces and pasta we made in back; customers choose what pasta they wanted with what sauce.
The first day, we didn’t tell anyone we opened. We were focused on making pasta and gnocchi. The first person came into the shop and ordered a Prosciutto Sandwich. My mom and I were working. I turned to my mom and asked, “Do I make the prosciutto sandwich?” She said, “Yeah, make the prosciutto sandwich as if you were making it for yourself!”. I made it, gave it to him and he left happy. People kept coming in. We got very busy organically and understood that people were telling each other “I found this spot, you should go!”
At what point did you realize this had become something other than you had intended?
Every time a customer came into the shop, we watched their reactions. One time this girl came in and ordered lasagna. She took the first bite, opened her eyes wide and got up to say, “This is the best lasagna I’ve ever had in my entire life.” In that moment, we realized the feedback people gave us while eating at the shop was 100,000 times better than delivering gnocchi to a restaurant. When delivering a product, you don’t know who’s eating it or if they like it. Having customers come in, eat, then express their feelings – it was amazing and more fulfilling. We looked at each other and said, “I think this is Pasta Sisters!”
What is something challenging that you’ve overcome?
This happened a little after one year of being open. My mom answered the phone when BuzzFeed called. She passed the call to my brother and said, “I don’t know what they want. I think it’s an advertisement.” My brother talked to them, they wanted to come in and make a quick video. They shot the video and said they’d let us know when it was out. One morning, we went to park in our usual lot at work, it was covered in people. We figured another store had an event or something. We opened the shop and people started taking pictures. We thought, “Oh my god, what did we do?”
That was probably the craziest day of our lives. The line went out the door and around Arlington the entire day, we had a two hour wait time for food, and around 3 PM we sold out of everything.
We looked at each other and said, “I don’t even know if this is good.” The second day, the same; third day, the same. We thought it’d slow down, but it didn’t. We hired people and grew very fast. It was one of the most difficult times for us. Before, we were growing organically but had our balance. After that, we had to rebuild everything; the complete balance of the shop, our ordering system, distributors, how to do grocery and storage. Everything went crazy, but we made it!
I feel at that point, being a family saved us, because if we were business partners, having different ideas could be a big problem. Being a family, in the end, we love each other.
Why the casual vibe in the restaurant?
In Italy, food isn’t fancy. You don’t have to have a fancy date or spend a lot of money to go out and eat. Everybody deserves a good meal. Anybody can go out with five bucks and eat a fantastic sandwich or even a plate of pasta. When we moved to Los Angeles, we missed this. We realized something happened to Italian food here. When we opened Pasta Sisters, that was one of our missions. We wanted to be a very authentic Italian place where you come in and if you’re wearing flip flops, it’s fine. You can spend $10 for a plate of pasta and it’s good quality. The eggs are organic, the flour, tomatoes and olive oil are from Italy. My mom tried many flours before choosing ours. If she didn’t find that flavor, she wasn’t happy. Our priority is to provide good food for an affordable price. We think everybody deserves a good meal.
3280 Helms Ave, Culver City, CA 90232