In Columbia, Missouri, Pasta La Fata has become synonymous with handmade Italian fare.
Over the last five years, owner Shelly La Fata has grown a solo side hustle – think evening popups centered on flavor-packed palm-sized toasted ravioli – into a full-time venture. Alongside her crew, La Fata now makes an array of fresh and frozen pasta for sale at the Columbia Farmers Market as well as online.
Since the beginning, La Fata’s mission has been to honor traditions of Italian families like hers, and even amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, she never lost sight of her goals. Rather than press pause, Pasta La Fata has experienced a season of rapid growth, spurred by the uncertainty of the day.
“I was terrified that the farmers’ market would be forced to shut down, and [the market] and popups were our only source of revenue,” says La Fata.
So, like many other food-focused small businesses, she went online to connect with her customers. “I used Facebook first, which was challenging because it wasn’t designed for that,” she says. “Luckily, my general manager is also a graphic artist, and all summer we worked on designing a website. It’s really done big things for us.”
At the beginning of 2020, such significant changes weren’t part of the plan. “I never planned it like this, having a menu full of items that are just ready to go whenever you are,” says La Fata. “I just wanted to make people good food; I didn’t really plan on making them good food that was so fast and easy to prepare.”
La Fata and her team make pasta meals – from cannelloni to ravioli to lasagna – five days a week. Everything is scratch-made with local, in-season ingredients and first-rate Italian imports. The lasagna comes in two varieties: The Green & Roasted Garlic filling features local greens such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard and mustard greens wilted in olive oil and blended with roasted garlic, while the Meatball filling is a blend of pork and wagyu beef that melts in the mouth. Another must-try item, the ravioli is available with the same filling flavors as well as other thoughtfully created combinations, including butternut squash-Gorgonzola, mushroom-Cabernet and black truffle-burrata. Customers can also concoct their own dishes with Pasta La Fata’s fresh pasta (bucatini, cavatelli, fettuccine, linguine and more) and tomato sauce (classic or spicy) or pesto (cilantro or pea shoot).
Like the menu, Pasta La Fata’s online shop caters to ease: Choose delivery or pickup and pay by credit card or Venmo (which saves you and Pasta La Fata a few bucks).
An outpouring of community support has kept the crew at Pasta La Fata motivated throughout the pandemic. “That’s absolutely what inspires me,” says La Fata. “We have a Facebook group called Pasta La Fata Famiglia; it’s made up of our top customers and fans. There are 550 people in the group now. I post there; they respond right away and share pictures of their meals. We have this little pasta-loving community, and people give me so much feedback and enthusiasm and encouragement, so I know exactly what they want and how they like their meals. I’m doing this for them.”
The majority of Pasta La Fata’s handmade meals come frozen, but after receiving daily inquiries about more varieties of fresh pasta, La Fata decided it was time to invest in a pasta extruder, a machine that creates different pasta shapes such as bucatini, spaghetti and rigatoni that can’t be made completely by hand.
Last November, La Fata launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the investment. Within two weeks, it raised $10,000 – enough to buy the pasta extruder, which La Fata subsequently named Dolly.
The extruded pasta has become the star of Pasta La Fata’s weekly meal kits, which are available exclusively for preorder online. “I don’t bring extra kits to the farmers’ market because they are so fresh – they just go from me to you to your fridge, that fast,” says La Fata. “It’s fresh pasta – bucatini, rigatoni, mostaccioli, etc. with a sauce. We’ve been doing a Bolognese, a beef short rib ragù or a pesto cream sauce.”
Dolly has created a new favorite for La Fata – one she’s sure her customers will also come to love. “I don’t have everybody addicted to bucatini yet, but it’s the calm before the bucatini storm. I’m sowing the seeds and getting them to recognize what it is.”
The new shapes of pasta aren’t the only thing keeping customers happy; what’s inside is just as appealing. Fresh, organic eggs from Share-Life Farms and sustainably sourced, finely ground flour from North Dakota come together to form the rich, golden pasta dough, while Lage Farms wagyu beef and a variety of locally grown tomatoes, greens and herbs create some of the fillings.
Pasta La Fata’s sauces are delicious as well, but La Fata feels like it’s her duty to encourage customers to make their own versions at home. “I’m selling this beautiful fresh pasta, and I really want people to have the confidence to create their own sauce, because I know how great that experience can be, just making something really simple with olive oil, garlic and chiles and putting that on the fresh pasta,” she says. “You don’t need a beef short rib ragù that’s cooked for six hours. I’ll make that for you, and I know that it’ll be unforgettable, but you can also just put some olive oil and Parmesan on [the pasta] and that’ll be the best meal you have all week.”
Reflecting on the past year, La Fata is grateful for her involvement with the Columbia Farmers Market, whose online store and impeccable COVID-19 protocols have helped her business and others stay afloat. “It was so scary at first, and now they’re congratulating us on a job well done,” she says of the market’s recently awarded title of “COVID Crusher” by the Columbia Department of Public Health and Human Services. “It felt so good to be a part of that and to watch it all happen. The customers never really left us.”
With orders steadily rolling in, La Fata is allowing herself to plan for the future. This summer, she hopes to buy a “sister” for Dolly to keep up with production demands for the new shapes of fresh pasta, and within two years, the idea is to have a brick-and-mortar shop but also sell Pasta La Fata products in grocery stores.
Down the line, La Fata intends to check another thing off of her customers’ wish lists: dried pasta. “A lot of people assume that we can dry pasta, but it is pretty complicated to dry a large batch,” she says. “It requires a high-tech machine that controls the humidity and the temperature in the chamber. Otherwise, it goes into the package and falls apart – it cracks.”
La Fata loves making and eating fresh pasta, but she doesn’t have a bad word to say about the dried variety. “I think that dry pasta is a staple food, and a lot of times just as good as fresh,” she says. “I can’t wait to produce it, but for us to actually be making it, packaging it and selling it in grocery stores, that will be another five years at least.”
Until then, savor what’s on the current menu. Orders can be placed Monday through Thursday online at pastalafata.net or columbiafarmersmarket.org or you can stop by Pasta La Fata’s booth at the Columbia Farmers Market on Saturday to pick up some of the classics.
To stay connected with Pasta La Fata, join the Pasta La Fata Famiglia Facebook group.
Pasta La Fata, pastalafata.net