National News

Romana Raffetto, Pasta Matriarch in New York, Dies at 85

Posted May 31, 2018 8:22 p.m. EDT

In 1906, when Marcello Raffetto opened his pastificio in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, selling red sauce would have been considered presumptuous by Italian-Americans because it was almost invariably prepared from fresh ingredients at home, and its customers could buy just two choices of pasta, referred to generically as macaroni.

Today, 112 years later, Raffetto’s, Marcello’s store and kitchen, makes and sells pasta in some 16 flavors (including black squid ink, chocolate and saffron) and in five shapes (including ethereal angel hair, star-shaped stellette and ravioli stuffed with a variety of fillings, ranging from white-and-black truffle to pumpkin).

And its customers are legion. Even people who have never set foot in this venerable store with the signature green awning on West Houston Street, between Macdougal and Sullivan Streets, have very likely tasted Raffetto’s wares. It sells both retail and wholesale to other markets and to hundreds of restaurants.

But stepping inside and inhaling the old-world flavor of Raffetto’s has always been half the fun, and for many years it was amply supplied by Romana Raffetto, a daughter-in-law of Marcello and the matriarch of the fourth generation of the family that still runs the business.

“If you are greeted by mouthwatering aromas of simmering sauce with hints of basil and garlic,” Mimi Sheraton wrote in The New York Times in 1997, “know that Romana Raffetto is working on one of the sublime sauces she turns out here.”

Romana Raffetto died on May 25 at 85 at a hospital in Manhattan. The cause was colon cancer, her granddaughter Sarah Raffetto said. But her legacy survives.

“Maybe I shouldn’t brag,” she told The Times in 2006, “but every sauce is my sauce.”

She was born Romana Marin on Aug. 29, 1932, in Asolo, Italy, a town about 30 miles northwest of Venice. Her father, Angelo, was a coal miner. Her mother, the former Giovanna Amendola, ran a vegetable stand.

Romana, a seamstress by training who never got beyond the fourth grade, began cooking when she was 10. She remembered making a ring cake for her father’s birthday, using a nearby bakery’s oven because her family’s kitchen lacked one.

She was devastated when the cake broke just before she got home, but recalled in an interview in 2014 how her father had consoled her: “He said, ‘Don’t worry, in order to eat we have to break it!'”

She came to America by way of England, where she was the young governess for the daughters of a British diplomat. When he was posted to the United States, the family brought her along. Within a month, she met Gino Raffetto, one of Marcello Raffetto’s sons, at a Greenwich Village cafe.

Gino had been born in New York in 1922 but had grown up in Italy. His father had returned there with his family after deciding to retire and turn over the store to two cousins (though he kept ownership of the Houston Street building).

The Depression and the approach of World War II interrupted Gino’s studies to become a doctor so he returned to the United States, arriving back in New York just before the war began and, bilingual and well-credentialed academically, started working for a bank. That was when he met Romana Marin.

“I invited Gino to dinner,” Romana Raffetto said. “They say to take the man through the stomach.”

They married in 1960 and lived above the store, raising their own sons in the same building in which he had been born.

By the early 1970s, however, her husband was bored, stuck in a dead end job, and when his older cousin tired of running the pasta shop, Gino Raffetto went to work in the store founded by his father. And in 1978, when the cousin died, he became sole owner.

It took a lot out of him to go from a suit and tie every day to a white apron sweeping the sidewalks,” Raffetto said. “But he was thinking about the boys’ future.”

Gino Raffetto died in 2006. Romana Raffetto is survived by their sons, Andrew and Richard; two brothers, Carlo and Silvano Marin; and eight grandchildren.

Gino Raffetto eventually turned over the business to his sons. Romana Raffetto said, “The advice he gave to them is, ‘Always sell good stuff, you will never die of hunger.'” To satisfy the expanding tastes of modern customers, though, the good stuff had to go beyond the original staples.

“Early on, it would have been unthinkable for us to make a tomato sauce,” Andrew Raffetto told The Times in 2006. “We sold tomatoes, tomato paste — ingredients to make a red sauce. That you would serve anyone’s sauce but your own in your own home?”

Raffetto’s originally produced only two types of ravioli — meat and cheese — and, before refrigeration, most of the pasta it sold were egg noodles or a dry spinach variety. But by the 1980s the store had to keep pace with changing tastes.

“Suddenly people were asking, ‘Do you have mushroom?'” Andrew Raffetto. “There was a demand, and we needed to meet it.”

His mother would experiment with new recipes. Not every one worked.

“Do you like it? Is it good?” Romana Raffetto would ask her husband, who would try to be encouraging, Andrew Raffetto said. “He said, ‘Yeah, it’s OK, but don’t make it again.'”

Mass production demanded standardization and an exactitude to recipes that Raffetto found difficult to provide, to her son’s frustration.

“Two pinches!” Andrew Raffetto exclaimed, as quoted by a Times reporter who was visiting the store. “What does that mean?”

“I know what it means,” Romana Raffetto replied, “because it’s my pinch.”

For all the fancy new flavors, however, plenty of customers still preferred the staples.

Once, when Romana Raffetto went up front to attend to a dinnertime crowd, a customer, disappointed that his favorite polenta had sold out, picked up a package of cavatelli with broccoli raab and tentatively waved it at her.

“Is this good?” he asked plaintively.

“You ask me if it’s good if I made it?” she bristled. “It’s the best one.”