To hear 45 year old ex-restaurant chef Dave Valicenti tell it, making a living selling food at farmer’s markets was far from a master plan.
“In fact I didn’t even want to do farmers markets at all. My mother was like, ‘you know that’s how Stonewall Kitchen started,’ and so I’m like yeah, I don’t want to be one of those carny-weirdos who goes around to farmers markets.”
But Valicenti -who grew up in Hollis and left after high school to play punk rock drums and work in restaurants in Boston and then New Orleans - got over it. And eight years later, farmers markets in New Hampshire and Massachusetts remain the way he, his wife Michelle, and a crew that can swell to twenty, move most of Valcenti Organico’s product: sauces and lots and lots of pasta.
“We have like two dozen fresh pasta varieties. During the course of year we have about 80 types of ravioli that we run. They are all seasonal, and it has very much what to do with what we are growing and what we are harvesting. We might even have 30 plus flavors at one time at a Farmer’s Markets.”
Right now it might be sweet potato, brown butter and sage, duck confit with ginger and shitake, or braised chestnut. Later this spring, it could be ramps and morels, rabbit, arugula or sweet peas. One reason all the variety is possible is because Valicenti Organico pasta is made in small batches -- and also because it’s as much a farming operation as it is a culinary one.
“We have about ten acres or so that we cultivate, mostly tomatoes and eggplant and things for the sauce. We also grow a million others vegetables and herbs for the pasta and ravioli filling. So what we do is, if there is something we are not growing or something that other farmers in the farmer market circuit that we know and have relationships with, are growing we will get it from them, 'Oh, I have this crazy strain of Mirai corn, which is amazing,' and we’ll say great, give me a couple of bushels.”
This approach, coupled with adapting to a farmer’s hours - "seven days a week, it doesn’t end. You do these things and you go home and have dinner, and your done, and do it again the next day" - has allowed Valcenti Organico to grow steadily. Valicenti says changing things up and building ties with farms has kept things fresh for his team and for customers. At around ten dollars a pound, Valicenti pasta doesn’t come cheap for anyone. And while gross sales were around a million dollars last year, margins are slim.
“If we made a million dollars it took us $900,000 to get there, but that’s part of what we are doing. I’m hoping that in the next couple years, we could be a little less seat of our pants as we go along, because it’s a little scary sometimes. But I guess that’s any business."
But it’s a very rare business that produces things that taste so good.