I n a quiet residential neighborhood in West Haven, a few hundred square feet of Italy lie tucked away under a green, white and red sign that reads “Durante’s Pasta.”
Angelo Durante, the owner of Durante’s, says that his mother and father immigrated from Italy 30 years ago. They came from Ruviano, a town of less than 2,000 people in the Caserta Province, which borders the Tyrrhenian Sea. The area is known for the city of Naples, as well as historical castles and picturesque mountains, but Durante notes a simpler claim to fame. “They make good pasta there.”
His parents began with a deli in Derby, but after 15 years they moved to West Haven and set up shop at the current location on Fenwick Street, which has a cavernous kitchen in the back. There, pasta is made along with other Italian staples like tomato sauce, Taralli (a fennel and pepper biscuit popular in Caserta) and Guanti, or “Angel Wings,” a traditional Italian Christmas cookie.
While the Durantes have been making fresh pasta ever since they arrived in America, the gourmet market in front of their shop is brand new. “It opened about a month ago,” Durante says. “In the last five years there’s been a huge demand for fresh artisanal pasta, which is what we do.” In addition to the pasta, which they sell fresh, dried and frozen, they make sandwiches and sell imported Italian goods—a dizzying selection of olive oil, canned tomatoes, sweets and cheeses.
The pasta, as the sign outside suggests, is the star of the show. I tried two types of Durante’s ravioli: lobster and porcini, which are available frozen in the market. For such a compact serving, each ravioli was bursting with flavor. The lobster offering was sweet and dense, with a generous serving of meat that Durante says is only taken from the claw and tail. The porcini variety, which is remarkable for how well the powerful, earthy umami of the mushrooms melds with the tender pasta, is filled with a blend of rehydrated fungi and “our signature ricotta mixture” plus “a few secret ingredients I can’t share with you,” he says with the practiced coyness of a lifelong chef.
The pasta-making process at Durante’s is designed to mimic the techniques of “the old days,” he says, “when grandma or grandpa would make it with the volcano style and knead it by hand.” (“Volcano” describes the shape of the initial mound of flour, with eggs poured into the crater.) While the egg noodle dough is mixed in a hopper and then run through large rollers, many of Durante’s more intricate pastas are made by hand, including ravioli, manicotti and cavatelli. All told, the kitchen pumps out 25 different kinds.
The most striking sight in the cooking area is a set of long wood and wire drying racks, full of fresh yellow ribbons of pasta curling up at the edges. “One of the most important things about our pasta is that we still air-dry it,” Durante says. The drying can take up to two days, after which the result is ready to be packaged and sold in the storefront.
Other than the universal appeal of starchy carbohydrates and the comforting sight of a fresh pile of noodles, Chef Durante pegs Italian food’s lasting allure on the culture that surrounds it. While stirring an enormous vat of tomato sauce, whose surface glistens with olive oil and swirls with green herbs, Durante introduces me to his wife and daughter, who have come to visit him at work, and who catalyze a bigger idea.
“We not only love to make food,” he says of himself and his fellow Italians, “but we love to be around family. One of the most important parts of Italian culture is being around the table with family, eating and being merry. That’s the beauty of Italian food.”
Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.