Carmela's Pasta Shop
Carmela Orfitelli, of Carmela's Pasta Shop in Wethersfield, came to Connecticut in 1968 at the age of 17, from a small town 45 minutes south of Naples called Solopaca.
Known for its wine, Solopaca has a population of just over 4,000, and in the late 1960s didn't appear to offer much of an economic future for the Ianucci family — Orfitelli's maiden name.
So the dark-haired teenager came to America with her mother and father for the same reason my own family came 40 years earlier — economic opportunity.
"We were better off [in Italy] than some people," said Orfitelli. "We had three bars."
And indeed Orfitelli speculates that had the Ianuccis stuck it out back home, they would have made out fine. But things aren't too shabby here either.
Carmela's Pasta Shop has a loyal following of customers who recognize the real deal when they taste it, and have kept Orfitelli, 57, cooking for 10 years since opening up with some trepidation in May 1997. It's not that she doubted her abilities as a cook, having been in the kitchen since she was a child in Italy, but Orfitelli was unsure of whether anyone would come through the front door.
"I cried every night, I was scared if I ruin this we're lost," said Orfitelli.
I knew from my first bite of beef ravioli that Orfitelli could have saved the tears. The ravioli was not only perfectly al dente — the springy, not mushy, consistency that properly cooked pasta must have — but also completely authentic, with a simple, full-bodied sauce dominated by the taste of tomatoes, not spices. The sauce was also a little runny, not thick like ketchup as pretenders tend to be.
Orfitelli was perplexed at first by customers asking whether she could put sugar in the sauce to make it more sweet — unheard of in her native Italy.
"To me it was an odd question," said Orfitelli, who would agree to do it, even though she never would.
The meat inside Carmela's ravioli was also perfectly seasoned, and again, not mushy like the meat in cheap ravioli, which tend to be reminiscent of canned dog food.
The shells themselves, made from fresh semolina dough on an impressive $20,000 stainless steel pasta maker imported from Italy, are thin and delicate. Orfitelli has not been able to supply her ravioli to restaurants, because they can only be frozen for about six weeks before they tend to stick together when cooked. Commercial ravioli have to be thick and tough, she says, able to endure extended stays in the freezer.
Orfitelli was surrounded by family when she came to Connecticut, with aunts and uncles and cousins already living on Silas Deane Highway, where her business is located today. Her sister and two brothers also soon joined her and her parents, but still the transition to the United States was difficult. Orfitelli remembers arriving for the first time in Wethersfield on a Friday in October and going to work at a tool and die company in Hartford the following Monday.
"I'll never forget, I cried the whole day, I didn't speak one word of English," she said.
Orfitelli began to teach herself English by listening to native speakers, and language records, and movie dialogue. In the meantime she followed the somewhat Draconian advice of one of her aunts.
"For one year I didn't speak English," said Orfitelli. "My aunt said 'Only say no, never yes. You don't know what they're offering.'"
Orfitelli had married her husband Richard, who was born and raised in America, at the age of 20. In 1986, when he was just 46 years old, Richard Orfitelli died of cancer, leaving his wife to raise their two sons, Antonio, 14 and Michael, 10, on her own. She did it by working nonstop, cleaning houses, manning the cash register at a Franklin Avenue restaurant, and many other jobs, without any thought for remarrying.
"I was a jack of all trades, there was no time for a love life," said Orfitelli. "I couldn't afford to feed my kids."
Orfitelli's mother-in-law was also living with her and her two sons in their small house. She was in Orfitelli's bed while Orfitelli took the couch. She had to add on to the house — somehow.
Orfitelli began calling contractors and getting bids, until a friend suggested Pasquale Vadalla, a long-time Wethersfield contractor, well-known around town, who did the work for a reasonable price, and did it well. After the job was done, he kept coming around, eventually asking Orfitelli out.
Nothing if not blunt, Orfitelli pointed out to Vadalla, 30 years her senior, that he was old enough to be her father. Vadalla, who died in 2002, countered with a simple argument — that his intentions were honorable, and that he knew Orfitelli was running herself ragged trying to keep up, working three jobs.
"He said 'I can make your life easier,'" said Orfitelli.
Vadalla wanted his new wife to stay home and not work, but she had other ideas. As did officials in the town of Wethersfield, who knew the couple well. Someone in town government, she doesn't remember who, suggested to Orfitelli that Wethersfield needed a good pasta shop, and she was just the person to make it happen.
Vadalla agreed to buy the wreck of a house at 338 Silas Deane Highway where Carmela's remains, and fix it up for her business, with one condition.
"He said 'I give you a year, if it doesn't work I want you back home,'" Orfitelli said. "I thought 'I better make it work, I don't want to go home.'"
Ten years later, Orfitelli has made it work, and then some. Her son Michael, 31, mans the front counter, taking lunch orders and chatting up customers, while her sister Maria cooks with her in the expansive kitchen. Other members of her extended family in Wethersfield, and friends, come by and help out frequently.
In addition to offering fresh pasta ranging from cavitelli with marinara sauce to lasagna for lunch, Carmela's has egglant, chicken parm and other grinders and a full range of salads. The store also offers all of the staples of Italian cooking for you to buy and take home, including frozen pasta made in-house, parmesan and romano cheeses, Carmela's sauces and a range of olive oils.
Orfitelli frequently gets offers from well-heeled customers from Greenwich and elsewhere to open up more Carmela's Pasta Shops around the state, but she refuses them all.
"This is it," Orfitelli says. "Once you move, you can't be there 24 hours a day. I don't want to be rich. Rich people go crazy. I have enough. I get up in the morning and I never think, 'I don't want to go to work.' I just want to be happy."
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