It’s got only three main ingredients — flour, water and eggs — but making good pasta takes much more than that.
“You’ve got to have it in your heart, especially when you start it by hand, you know?” said Romolo Pede Sr., his eyes bright, his words warmed with traces of his native tongue. “The little machine we had in Italy, it was by hand.”
Pede learned to make pasta as a teenager growing up near Rome. In 1963, at age 21, he came to Schenectady knowing no English but fluent in the ways of making specialties long popular on the Italian dinner table.
He and his late brother, Sante, started Pede Brothers Italian Specialty Foods in 1967. Today, the business produces about 200,000 pounds of pasta each week.
In the early days, the brothers sold pasta at Loblaws Market in Schenectady and delivered their specialties store-to-store in Syracuse.
“We used to make the pasta at night and then sell it at the market during the day,” Pede recounted.
He recalled making ricotta-stuffed manicotti one piece at a time.
Today, his 32,000-square-foot facility rings with the percussion of a machine that forms and then chops an endless stuffed manicotti noodle into four-inch lengths. Waiting workers pack the pieces carefully into plastic holders.
“Now we do 120 a minute,” Pede said, sounding proud and still a bit amazed by that fact.
Pasta is produced from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every weekday at the Pede plant on Duanesburg Road, where 22 people are employed.
Weekly, the process consumes about 50,000 pounds of both flour and ricotta cheese, and 8,000 pounds of eggs.
The recipes have been tweaked a bit since Pede brought them from Italy, but they’re essentially the same, said his son, David, who also works at the plant.
On Wednesdays, manicotti and gnocchi are made. The flour for both flows from a wall-mounted stainless steel silo large enough to hold a week’s worth of durum semolina. The flour is mixed with water and eggs in stainless steel machines; potato flakes are added to the gnocchi dough.
There’s a machine that forms the gnocchi, a conveyor belt that transports the finished product into a vast freezer full of rotating, circular shelves and another contraption that deposits the frozen pasta into one-pound bags.
Although much of the pasta-making process is automated, a surprising amount is still done by hand. An employee shovels specially seasoned ricotta into a funnel that dispenses it onto the manicotti noodles. Another hand packs wavy lasagna noodles into boxes. A group of workers fills shell-shaped pasta with ricotta, one shell at a time, churning out about 50,000 of them a day.
Production is always supervised by a family member, said Pede’s son Romolo Jr.
“We’re here every day, so we’re watching everything they do to make sure they do everything right. We don’t take days off,” he said.
Finding employees who will stick with the repetitive work at the plant is becoming more of a challenge, he noted.
The first Pede Brothers storefront was on Guilderland Avenue. It moved to its present location at the Duanesburg Road production plant in 1997. The cash-and-carry store, run by Pede’s daughter AnnMarie, sells what the family produces, along with Italian staples like panettone, olive oil, pickled cherry peppers and green Cerignola olives.
The senior Pede has handed over much of the pasta-making operation to his children, who continue to run it the way he taught them.
“We use really good ingredients. We don’t cheat on anything,” said Romolo Jr. “We’ve been using all the same stuff for the last 40 years.”
Pede wouldn’t reveal any of his recipes but gave some advice for fledgling pasta-makers: “You’ve got to have patience and love and good stuff — good ingredients. That’s the main thing. You use good ingredients, everything’ll turn out good.”