It is only fitting that Evette Lecce, owner of Pensi Pasta, grew up on Monterey’s Spaghetti Hill. By now she has been in business for 13 years as one of only a handful of local producers—Pasta Palate in Carmel and the Monterey Pasta Company among them—despite the fact that, for the most part, Pensi Pasta has been a shoestring operation.
The arriving seasonal surge helps her not just survive, but thrive.
“Just before the holidays I have Italian families come in with fillings for me to make them ravioli,” she says. “They have me make about 50-60 pounds of ravioli, that they freeze so it will last them the whole year. They won’t buy the ravioli with my fillings, because they only trust their families’ recipes.”
Maybe those families should reconsider. Lecce’s recipes, like the one for her meat ravioli, were handed down from her great-grandmother, who came to the U.S. from Italy. As a little girl, Lecce would watch her great-grandmother Emilia make food during trips to her home on Lombard Street in San Francisco. For holidays the entire family would gather at the house to make ravioli, gnocchi and a range of sauces by hand. Lecce remembers how most of the flat spaces in the house, like the beds and tables, would be covered with drying pasta and freshly pressed ravioli, an operation that would take the family a better part of a day.
As a teenager Lecce followed her grandmother Eva around the kitchen while being instructed in the art of making those same traditional Italian dishes and foods from scratch—and from memory. This cook-by-feel method is the same Lecce uses today, adding a bit here and there to batches of sauces, spreads and dips until they taste just right. Items like her clam sauce, lemon cream sauce and pomegranate salsa are all handmade in her Marina shop without preservatives.
Wanda Straw, general manager of Big Sur’s Sierra Mar restaurant, is familiar with Pensi’s playbook. “She was the first person in the area to make pasta on the artisan level,” Straw says. “She’s the best game in town.”
But there’s more to Pensi than pasta. Her spreads, dips and salsas helped her stay in business during the lean Atkins diet craze.
“About five or six years ago my sales of pasta just dropped,” she says. “I had to figure something out to stay afloat, and that’s why I started making my dips and spreads. No one wanted to buy carbs, and I started making things full of butter, fat, and protein that people weren’t scared of.”
Her creamy—and creative—maple pumpkin spread might seem like a seasonal item, but it’s something she has to make year-round to meet demand. It also tastes good on almost anything: I tried it on cookies, bagels and toast, and found that this sweet, spiced and decadent spread makes the blandest of foods taste like a holiday in your mouth.
Lecce says she keeps her inventory of items fresh and innovative with a little bit of literature. “I have an arsenal of cookbooks where I find recipes,” she says, “then I change them and that’s the fun part. I like to cook with the seasons and I’m always trying new stuff.”
This year she even sold a bag of Halloween themed pasta, combining orange-colored pasta made with red bell peppers, and black pasta—dyed with squid ink acquired from fishermen at the wharf in Monterey—to give a distinctive two-toned look.
During the peak holiday season Lecce’s shop churns out close to 2,000 pounds of pasta and ravioli per week. That’s one whole ton of food, which doesn’t even count non-pasta items. Most of this weight is sold wholesale to some of the Peninsula’s favorite eateries like Casanova, Monterey Coast Brewing Company and the Monterey Fish House.
“It’s wonderful and homemade,” Monterey Fish House Manager Matt Horsburgh says. “We buy her linguine and crab and cheese ravioli.” Lecce also stocks a nice variety of pasta and sauces in a refrigerated display at Whole Foods Monterey.
She also gets a good bustle going at the Old Monterey Marketplace on Tuesday and at the MPC Farmers Market on Friday, where one of her two daughters often joins her at the Pensi Pasta booth. Talia and Sarah help make the pasta, package food, complete deliveries and make sales. On the rare occasion that Lecce can’t do something herself she can rely on them to get the job done.
“If I can’t make it to a farmers market, they’ll be up at 4:30 in the morning at the shop, getting the truck loaded and ready to go,” she says.
It’s something the girls have been familiar with for a while: When Pensi Pasta first opened she had no employees and she also didn’t have a babysitter.
“My daughters were raised here and at farmers markets,” she says.
Her dedication to her culinary craft—and her customers—might be best summed up with a story harkening back to a year after she opened.
“After I opened the shop I got my finger stuck in the ravioli machine when I was tired and wasn’t watching what I was doing,” she says. “The only way to get it out was by pressing the reverse lever. The people at the Vietnamese market next door had to call 911, I was taken to the ER, and got 30 stitches in my right hand.
“[But] all I could think about was making the farmers market the next day.”