The Woman at the Center of L.A.’s Big, Beautiful Pasta Moment
Leah Ferrazzani mixes flour and water for many great L.A. restaurants at her tiny kitchen in Pasadena.
Leah Ferrazzani, who makes pasta that’s served at top-tier L.A. restaurants like Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza, Ted Hopson’s The Bellwether, and Jackson Kalb’s Jame Enoteca, says her job “is a pretty simple process, ultimately.” After all, she’s mixing flour with water and then extruding pasta. One complicating factor, though, is that flour is heavy.
“I think half my job is lifting things,” says Ferrazzani, who runs the 850-square-foot Semolina Artisanal Pasta kitchen and shop in Pasadena.
Her staff consists of an assistant pasta maker, plus a couple barely part-time employees who work about one day each week. In addition to being a full-time mom, Ferrazzani puts in about 40 hours a week at Semolina Artisanal Pasta and is often there alone. So when a pallet of North Dakota organic durum semolina shows up at the doorstep, she will move the 50 bags of 50-pound flour into her shop herself. That flour is stored next to a supply of unfolded boxes that resemble what you’d find in the packing aisle of Home Depot.
The other day, Kalb needed some rigatoni at Jame, so Ferrazzani put 50 pounds of dried pasta in an Uber, which resulted in a ride that surpassed 30 miles and $40.
“Obviously, she’s running a really small operation,” says Kalb, who adds that Ferrazzani once had a friend drive over with 200 pounds of pasta when Jame needed it for an event. “We try to support her as best as we can. It’s a pretty funny relationship we have with her. It’s not normal. We’re not going to a distributor or anything. She’s legit. She’s great.”
Before we get into how Ferrazzani got here and how her current setup is a major upgrade over the makeshift pasta-drying situation she had in the laundry room of her Mount Washington house, you should understand that she’s the woman in the middle of L.A.’s big, beautiful pasta moment all over the city. Her dried pasta, like the rigatoni that Love & Salt’s pasta dream team of executive chef Chris Feldmeier and chef de cuisine Tracey Harada serves with a wonderfully rich all’amatriciana sauce in Manhattan Beach, has a firm bite that holds up when it’s drenched in a tomato-based sugo. The strong texture of the rigatoni is what makes Feldmeier insist on getting dried pasta from Ferrazzani.
But at the behest of Matt Molina, the chef who opened Hippo in Highland Park last year, Ferrazzani recently started making supple fresh pasta like bucatini and spaghetti as well. Her fresh pasta has become such a hit that it’s on the menu at Hippo, Osteria Mozza in Hancock Park, The Bellwether in Studio City, Farmshop in Brentwood, and Lincoln (adjacent to Semolina Artisanal Pasta) in Pasadena. One thing to consider about the quality of what Ferrazzani is supplying is that many of her clients are restaurants with their own impressive housemade pasta programs. She’s like an extension of their team. She will create specific shapes of pasta for restaurants that want to simplify their labor and/or don’t want to spend $25,000 on a fancy extruder.
Ferrazzani was a manager at Pizzeria Mozza not long after it opened in 2006, and being around Silverton made her fall in love with the idea of making food from scratch. She started making her own pasta at home.
After leaving restaurant operations to become a food-and-wine writer, Ferrazzani had a son, Enzo, and a daughter, Gia. This left her with less time to mix flour and water. And when she tried to buy dried pasta at L.A. stores, she couldn’t find anything good that was locally made. She “went down a rabbit hole” and found out that a lot of American flour was being exported to Italian pasta companies.
So she decided to start her own L.A. pasta business. She realized that there was a lot of information about making pasta but not much about drying it. So she cold-emailed experts like writer Gianni Mondelli and professor of cereal science Frank Manthey. She exchanged emails with them about things like thermodynamics and moisture. She went to Italy and staged at pasta producers.
“I would be there all day and ask questions, and they would answer me in dialect, which was obnoxious because I couldn’t use my [Google] Translate,” Ferrazzani says. “So I would just spend most of the day watching the little computer screens on the pasta dryers and writing down what was happening inside.”
She considered how the temperature and humidity slowly decreased. Then she went home and converted her L.A. laundry room into a pasta-drying chamber. She tiled the walls, ceiling, and floor. She installed big fiberglass doors that sealed shut. She put a computer fan in the window. The fan was connected to a hygrostat, an instrument that monitors humidity (and is often used in environments like egg incubators). There was also a Vicks vaporizer connected to the hygrostat.
“Miracle of miracles, it worked,” Ferrazzani says of her drying room.
Ferrazzani now has her dried pasta in stores that include Whole Foods Markets in Southern California and select retailers nationwide. You can also buy her pastas directly online and join a pasta-of-the-month club. The fresh pastas she has at restaurants are also available at her shop.
She’s continuing to develop new pastas for her restaurant clients. Kalb wants her to make dried paccheri for Jame. Hopson says he often talks to her about creating new pasta shapes and that they bond over the fact that they’re both small-business owners who love Italian food. Hopson, who says that the five pastas he recently put on the menu at The Bellwether are now 40 percent of what comes out of his kitchen, is looking to add more Italian dishes at his lovely all-over-the-map restaurant. He wants Ferrazzani to be a big part of his menu expansion.
“It’s very nice to have a partner who’s equally as passionate,” Hopson says.
The connections run deep in L.A.’s pasta world. Ferrazzani worked in the front-of-the house at Pizzeria Mozza when Molina and Bryant Ng were in the kitchen. Ng went on to open The Spice Table and Cassia, where Harada, who previously was on the pasta station at Osteria Mozza, worked as sous chef before joining Feldmeier at Love & Salt. Feldmeier got to know Ferrazzani because he used to cook at Osteria Mozza.
When Hopson was developing his dough recipe for the pasta he’s making in-house at The Bellwether, he got feedback from former Love & Salt executive chef Michael Fiorelli and Rossoblu pasta-maker Francesco Allegro. Hopson also called his friend Steve Samson, the chef who runs Rossoblu, and asked if it would be OK to come by and check out Allegro’s process.
“I told Steve, ‘Please, I would never steal any of your recipes,'” Hopson says. “‘I want to be very upfront about it.’ He was like, ‘Are you kidding? We’re family. Get over here.’ Steve was incredibly supportive of me going to Rossoblu. He told me, ‘Make whatever you want. I don’t care.’ It speaks to the community of chefs. It’s all about the success we all share.”
“It’s pasta,” Samson says matter-of-factly when I ask him about Hopson visiting.
The point is, Samson’s a chef who doesn’t believe in keeping secrets. In fact, Ferrazzani says that he was a huge help to her when she got started as well. This was back when Samson was running Sotto. He had a pasta extruder and didn’t need to buy anything from her, but he was always happy to share his thoughts about the pasta she brought over.
Ferrazzani adds that she’s grateful that Lincoln chef Christine Moore, “who’s been a mentor for years,” called to tell her the cozy space that would become Semolina Artisanal Pasta was available a couple years ago.
“The space was the right size, and the price was within my budget, and it was the best thing I ever did,” says Ferrazzani, who moved into the location in November 2017, was officially up and running by January 2018, and opened to the public in May 2018.
It’s clear that what Ferrazzani makes is pasta that’s directly influenced by what she’s learned from many of L.A.’s superstar chefs. Semolina Artisanal Pasta is also part of a trend where the best artisanal products in L.A. can be purchased at grocery stores. You can now get Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Pruiett’s Tartine bread and cookies at the downtown and Fairfax Avenue locations of Whole Foods. (Not incidentally, Ferrazzani has been talking to Chris Bianco about the Cairnspring Mills flour he’s using at Tartine's downtown complex, The Manufactory. She already sells Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes at her shop.) Silverton has a new line of La Brea Bakery sourdough with pain levain, country wheat batard, and sprouted multigrain and seed loaves that are available on retail shelves in L.A. and will soon be rolled out nationwide. Silverton also has her own line of gelato.
“I think especially if you think about what happened with the economy in '08, people started kind of dialing back their restaurant eating, but it didn’t change their cravings for really high-quality product,” Ferrazzani says. “I think there’s demand for better specialty items. My $8 bag of pasta will feed a family of four. It kind of democratizes the luxury a little bit.”
And whether you’re at home or at a restaurant, pasta is, of course, as comforting as food gets.
“I think Italian food is so approachable and comforting,” Ferrazzani says. “We’re at a time when there’s so much insecurity about the world and our place in it and food systems. There’s something about Italian food and the mythology around it that’s pure. It’s simplicity. It’s not complicated. It’s very simple and sensual.”
It’s about knowing that flour and water can be the foundation of a perfect meal. And L.A. is lucky that Ferrazzani is in Pasadena moving around heavy bags of semolina, that she’s thinking deeply about hydration, that she’s constantly tweaking things like her mix time, that she’s lifting pasta rack by rack and packaging the finished product bag by bag. She’s got a commercial dryer now, and Semolina Artisanal Pasta is producing about 450 to 750 pounds of dried pasta, along with 150 pounds of fresh pasta, each week. Ferrazzani is thinking about expanding into a larger kitchen and possibly taking over a space next door.
Semolina Artisanal Pasta, 1976 Lincoln Ave., Pasadena, CA, 323-352-8564