by Anya Sebastian
Nothing says Italian food like pasta. It’s been around for centuries and even today Italians regularly consume an astonishing 60 pounds of it each year. Pasta is such an essential part of their national heritage; it’s impossible to imagine life without it. Even if they leave Italy to settle somewhere else, their pasta-making skills go with them – and sometimes that passion can turn into a business.
Fortunately for New Mexicans, that’s what happened to Luisella Corbellari-Hunter, a native of Milan, when she teamed up with Michelle Martinez to create Pasta Divina. Their fresh, organic pasta, which was given a trial run at local farmers’ markets just two years ago, has since progressed to the refrigerated sections of Whole Foods and the Montanita Co-Op. The overwhelming response says it all; the delectable, Italian homemade taste of Pasta Divina has clearly found its mark.
Pasta was the last thing on Louisella’s mind when she arrived from Milan as a student, to attend UNM. Her intention was to graduate (which she did, obtaining an MBA in finance) and then return home. But things changed when she met her husband-to-be, a native New Mexican from Albuquerque, and, for the next few years, she became involved in marriage and motherhood. “I was looking for something I could do as a stay-at-home Mum,” she recalls, “so I decided to give private Italian lessons.” And that’s how she met Michelle.
Michelle Martinez (born Michelle Michelotti-Russell) had grown up in Los Alamos with an American scientist father and an Italian mother. Her mother spoke Italian when she didn’t want the children to understand, so Michelle never learned the language, but food was a different matter. “I grew up immersed in Italian home cooking, which I loved,” she says. Their common heritage sparked a friendship between the two women, who spent much of their time talking about the delights of growing up with a traditional Italian kitchen.
Louisella’s children were now in school and she was wondering what to do next when Michelle, who was working at Sandia Labs, decided to quit her job. It was 2006 and both were looking for a new direction. They had talked about going into business together and food was an obvious place to start. “But we couldn’t decide what to do,” says Louisella. “We didn’t want to open a restaurant and we didn’t want to do catering…” The answer came that summer, when she took a trip back to Italy and started paying special attention to the fresh pasta stores. After checking out the equipment and looking into the business side of things, she came back home, called her friend and said, “Let’s do pasta!”
It was the perfect solution but with all the many pasta products already out there, how would theirs even be noticed? The answer, they decided, was to go ‘certified organic’. It was something close to their hearts anyway and they wanted to produce a premium product. That meant finding organic wheat, a search that took them to Santa Fe to talk to Willem at Cloud Cliff bakery. “It was a great connection,” says Michelle. “Not only did he have the wheat, he also had an old pasta-making machine in the back of the bakery that he didn’t need any more, so he gave it to us!”
It was a freezing cold night in the dead of winter but nothing was going to stop the girls from checking out their newly acquired novelty. Since it was a water-cooled machine, they hooked it up to the washing machine outlet in the garage and waited, with eager anticipation, to see what would happen… “It was a disaster,” says Michelle simply. “The place was completely flooded – not a good start!”
Having no kitchen, the garage became their first center of operations. It was from there (having tamed the machine) that they produced the first small batches of pasta to sell at local farmers’ markets. Word clearly spread and one day, towards the end of the summer, they were approached by a Santa Fe businessman, who offered to finance their little pasta-making operation. “He basically wanted to buy the business,” says Louisella, “so we’d be working for him, instead of for us. We told him, thank you but no thank you and he got really angry and said, ‘Then you’ll never get out of the garage!’ That really fired us up. We were going to show him just how wrong he was.”
Their first move was to a kitchen in the back of a coffee shop, where the owner had room to spare. That arrangement lasted until last December, when they took their own premises in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. The kitchen is in the back and the front area faces directly onto the street. That space could one day be used for retail sales – they also make organic, flavored butters and two kinds of sauces – but for now, Pasta Divina has all the business two people can handle.
Organic wheat is now milled to their specifications in northern New Mexico, and they are experimenting with other varieties like kamut and spelt. Many products are flavored with a combination of different herbs and spices, to add variety for the American palate. “My mum is horrified,” says Louisella with a smile. “There’s no such thing as flavored pasta in Italy.”
Because everything is organic, fresh and completely pure – no additives or preservatives and never pasteurized – many people who cannot normally tolerate pasta, report no problems with theirs. “It really is a different product,” says Louisella. “The body knows the difference.”
Pasta Divina has seen an astonishing 700% growth in the past twelve months, not bad for a three-year-old business. In addition to Whole Foods, which came on board about a year ago, they now supply La Montanita Co-Op in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Silver City Co-Op in Silver City, and Wild Oats and Mountain View Co-Op in Las Cruces. So the Santa Fe financier definitely had a good eye for business; he just didn’t realize that he had met his match.
www.pastadivina.com (505) 385-9563 or (505) 577-2316
Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.