Food & dining

Traditional Italian sauces start in a New Hampshire field

photos by Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

HOLLIS, N.H. — David and Michelle Valicenti’s business started with a bumper crop of tomatoes that David turned into sauce. His family, originally from Italy’s Basilicata region (“the arch of the foot,” he says), calls it red gravy. “We went to a local fair and sold out in two weekends,” he says.

Today, the seven-year-old Valicenti Organico makes three sauces, an arugula pesto, and more than two dozen varieties of pasta, which the company sells at more than 20 Massachusetts farmers’ markets. What makes the business different from others is that the Valicentis grow almost all of the vegetables, greens, and herbs in their products. “That’s been the most fun — learning the farming,” says David. The former drummer-cum-restaurant-chef explains that past generations of Valicentis (pronounced vah-lee-CHEN-tee) grew and preserved their food, even made their own wine and beer. “It’s in our DNA,” he says.

David, 45, grew up in a white Colonial in Monument Square in this New Hampshire town 7 miles west of Nashua. The house is a stone’s throw from the yellow house where he and Michelle live and the red barn that serves as Valicenti Organico’s kitchen and packaging, refrigeration, and distribution center. This year, on 10 acres, they expect to harvest about 175,000 pounds of tomatoes, 10,000 eggplants, hundreds of bushels of beets, carrots, and sweet potatoes, and rows and rows of peppers, leafy greens, and herbs. “We go through a crazy amount of herbs,” he says, which are used in pasta dough and ravioli fillings.

At Valicenti Organico, Michelle and David Valicenti produce fresh pasta and ravioli, and grow all the tomatoes for their signature sauces.
Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe
At Valicenti Organico, Michelle and David Valicenti produce fresh pasta and ravioli, and grow all the tomatoes for their signature sauces.
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Determined to expand their sauce-making business, in 2009 the couple borrowed money to restore the old barn, plant more tomatoes, and bottle more sauce, both the original red gravy (tomato and basil) and “alla Norma” sauce, based on a Sicilian dish with roasted eggplant, tomatoes, and ricotta salata. At around the same time, they purchased two old pasta machines from a shuttered Italian restaurant and began producing fresh pasta. “I’ve been making pasta my entire life,” says David. A new ravioli machine was installed in 2011.

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“In the beginning, Michelle and I did everything: growing, processing, manufacturing, and selling,” says David. Michelle, 36, adds, “We catnapped when we could.” Now the couple, who met 10 years ago working at the former Michael Timothy’s Bistro in Nashua and married three years ago, employs 20 people during peak season.

For sauces, they grow Amish Paste tomatoes, which are thick and sweet, and Monica, another meaty plum variety. Harvested over an eight-week period, the tomatoes are washed, crushed in an apple grinder, and frozen in buckets in the company’s warehouse. “We draw from that [supply] all year long,” says David, for sauce they make about three times a week. They freeze crushed tomatoes, he says. “We can’t keep up with the harvest and bottle the sauce at the same time.”

What they don’t grow they buy from small area producers: eggs from Hollis’s Sucker Brook Farm, cream and butter from Shaw Farm in Dracut, and mozzarella and ricotta from Wolf Meadow Farm in Amesbury. Kellie Brook Farm in Greenland, N.H., supplies pork; Riverslea Farm in Epping, lamb; and nearby Hall Farm, grass-fed beef. Flour and other milled grains come from Four Star Farms in Northfield, and Brookford Farm in Canterbury, N.H.

Both David and Michelle are chefs, with a combined 40 years of cooking and baking in the restaurant industry. They develop the recipes. “We bounce ideas off each other,” he says. After much experimenting, Michelle came up with a gluten-free pasta they both love; it’s produced in a dedicated room in the barn. Head cook Jimmy Blaisdell, whom David has known since grade school, is in charge of preparing the fillings, all of which start out as flavorful (and time-intensive) braises, sautes, and roasts.

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For a bystander in the kitchen, it seems laborious to turn a huge pot of sauteed lobster, herbs, and aromatics — the makings of a luscious chunky sauce or chowder — into a puree to fill ravioli. The same goes for heady mixtures of duck confit with shiitake and ginger, porchetta with fennel, and barbecued lamb with caramelized sweet potato. No doubt, it requires immense self-control not to eat these straight from the pan. (David admits they sometimes do.)

“To grind it up, in one way, is a shame,” says David, “but no one else is doing ravioli fillings like that.” A few of the tempting vegetarian varieties include roasted beets with pecorino, truffled wild mushroom, grilled peaches, and basil, and toasted cauliflower with golden raisins and Grana Padano. “They’re not red sauce ravioli,” he says. (Think brown butter or a fruity olive oil and touch of balsamic or butternut squash and Parmigiano sauce.)

The pasta crew performs like a well-rehearsed band. Chris Candito mans the extruder, cutting off strands of semolina spaghetti every few seconds and nesting them on a wire-mesh tray. Shawn Bellisle, on the ravioli machine, sets up thick sheets of pasta on two rollers, which are pressed together around a portobello filling. He, too, works quickly, pulling off sets of three ravioli at a time as the machine forms and cuts them. Manager Justin Lunsford rolls dough through a small hand-crank pasta machine into long sheets to make agnolotti with a sweet corn filling, destined for a South End restaurant.

The founders, having worked nonstop for about half a decade, agree that the joys come from “the enthusiasm from the customers at the farmers’ markets,” says Michelle. The challenges have been numerous, from renovating the barn to handling the financial aspects of the operation. “We don’t have business experience,” she says. “We’re cooks.”

David continues to be inspired by farming his family’s land. “It’s gratifying to grow food and have success with it,” he says. “I’m not a commercial farmer, but [the farm is] beyond a garden now.” He admits that Michelle has to occasionally call him to come home. “She says, ‘Time to come inside now and stop playing in the dirt.’ ”

Valicenti Organico sauces and pastas are available at the company, 11 Monument Square, Hollis, N.H., 603-459-3627, www.gimmiespaghetti.com, weekdays 8 a.m.-5 p.m., at farmers’ markets in the Boston area, and at Savenor’s Market, 160 Charles St., Boston, 617-723-6328, and 92 Kirkland St., Cambridge, 617-576-6328; American Provisions, 613 East Broadway, South Boston, 617-269-6100.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.