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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook, a trailblazer in the gourmet-to-go trend, has been making food for over 30 years

    Head chef and founder Chef Lou Castanho puts pulled pork on quesadillas in the kitchen at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook on March 20, 2024. The popular gourmet-to-go popular store has grown in its three decades. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Head Chef Lou Castanho, left, and President Rich Cersosimo pose for a photo at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook, which they co-founded. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A dish of shrimp with red curry at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Pulled pork quesadillas cook on griddle pans in the kitchen at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Edgar Molina flips a pan of veggies in the kitchen at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Employee Elen Chiriboga restocks chicken and rice soup as customers shop the refrigerators at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook on March 20, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Employee Claudia Skinner talks with a customer as he checks out at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Jorge Jimenez seasons pork in the kitchen at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. The popular store was one of the first gourmet-to-go venues in the region and has grown in the three decades since. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Customers shop the refrigerators for prepared foods at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. The popular store was one of the first gourmet-to-go venues in the region and has grown in the three decades since. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Employees Christina Matute, left, and Christine Lee help a customer check out at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. The popular store was one of the first gourmet-to-go venues in the region and has grown in the three decades since. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Trays of broccoli rabe are ready to be packaged in the kitchen at Pasta Vita. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mark Cabrera works on packing broccoli rabe in the kitchen at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook on March 20, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Prepared food options at Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    On a recent afternoon, customers were striding purposefully from the parking lot into Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook. They wandered around the interior, gazing inside the refrigerated cases at the multitude of dishes neatly stacked in to-go containers. You could almost see the thought bubbles over customers’ heads: Should they choose the beef bourguignon? The chicken piccata? Maybe the jambalaya, or the stuffed peppers?

    Periodically, workers would roll out carts full of offerings fresh out of the kitchen. Some patrons ambled over to see what was new. They gazed at the vegetarian chickpea curry on one cart, the pasta with tomato alfredo sauce on another.

    Here’s what customers didn’t see: the beehive of activity happening in the vast kitchen located behind the check-out counter wall, or in another kitchen located above them on the building’s second floor.

    Upwards of 30 employees were hard at work in the kitchens. They were cutting, mixing, and heating up ingredients. Someone was running apples, one by one, through a peeler/corer and then sectioning them, getting them ready for apple crisp. Two other folks were trimming raw chicken and putting it through a machine that tenderizers it.

    As Pasta Vita President Rich Cersosimo said, it’s a gourmet-food factory.

    It’s also a business that was way ahead of the curve in the gourmet to-go trend. It was a trailblazer of sorts, offering made-from-scratch refrigerated meals long before so many other venues did.

    Pasta Vita has been around for more than 30 years, under the leadership of Cersosimo and chef Lou Castanho. Castanho is a graduate of the esteemed Culinary Institute of America and was head chef at two restaurants in Hartford before helping establish Pasta Vita.

    Cersosimo said that, for the first two decades, the business had little to no competition.

    “There was no take-out from all the grocery stores. None of the restaurants felt take-out made any sense so nobody did take-out from restaurants. There was no internet selling of food. In spite of all of that, we still have continued to grow every year. That’s my challenge. With all the competition (now), people opening stores and duplicating us — everybody who goes into this business at some point comes into Pasta Vita to see how to do it,” Cersosimo said, adding that includes people from other states.

    Best sellers

    Asked what the most popular dishes are, Cersosimo and Castanho both pointed to their chicken entrees. Castanho said chicken piccata, Francaise and marsala might be their top three. They sell about 60 orders of chicken piccata daily.

    Here are some other random Pasta Vita facts:

    – Pasta Vita filets all of its own fish.

    – One of the store’s best-selling cold salads is Summer Pasta Verde, which boasts spinach, tomato, garlic, olive oil and pasta.

    – Appetizers range from chicken wings to escargot.

    – Pasta Vita makes its own pies and its own gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.

    – Meals only stay on display for three days. They are color-coded, and the store posts an explanation of what the colors mean.

    A couple examples of prices: The grilled shrimp linguine, with fresh asparagus, cherry tomatoes, peas and lemon garlic sauce, is $14.50. The crustless spinach, mushroom and fontina quiche is $11.95.

    “Our value is so good because every one of our meals is for two, and all of our salads are for four, and they’re a generous size. It’s a great value. That’s why we continue to stay busy and get busier and busier,” Cersosimo said.

    “You’re getting something that’s made by a graduate of the Culinary Institute who’s using only the best ingredients; he uses as much all-natural products as any place you can find. He buys fresh, he buys local … There’s no added preservatives or anything like that. If you make everything from scratch like we do, you can taste it.”

    How it began

    The seeds for what became Pasta Vita began growing in the early 1990s. Castanho recalled that he was the executive chef at Hubbard’s restaurant in Hartford and started buying some pasta from Vin Stella. Stella asked Castanho if he’d consult on and later asked if the was interested in becoming a partner in the pasta business. They hired Cersosimo — who had just retired from working in marketing for 25 years at IBM — to help with marketing.

    At the time, they were selling pasta wholesale only. Their first big account was Stew Leonard’s grocery stores.

    “That’s what kept us in business the first three years. We had a wonderful relationship with them,” Cersosimo said.

    But people would wander into their site just down the street from the current Pasta Vita location is, asking if they could buy some ravioli or sauce. That happened enough that they decided to try selling retail. Cersosimo and Castanho bought out Stella and forged ahead.

    Castanho wanted to try something beyond what they had been doing. He started making four different chicken dishes, including chicken piccata and chicken parmesan. Cersosimo bought a used refrigerator case for $100, and they put the food in there to sell. Cersosimo recalled running an ad in a coupon book to entice customers; if they bought one meal, they would get a pound of pasta for free.

    “They really liked our food. One person would tell a friend, and they’d come in. And more people would come,” Cersosimo remembered.

    Business grew. They had to add a second refrigerator case, then another and another. Finally, they knew they had to move to a bigger location.

    Cersosimo heard that the space where Pasta Vita is now — and where a fence company had previously been housed — was up for sale. He looked at it and thought it would be an ideal spot.

    It required a lot of renovation, though. Pasta Vita added a second floor and a food elevator. They moved in circa 1996.

    One thing Cersosimo thought was vital was that the business not get too big too fast, preferring a very systematic growth each year. They never hired a lot of people all at once — nor did they ever have to have layoffs.

    Castanho offered similar sentiments, saying, “We never got into really heavy debt, which was really important. We weren’t making much and we weren’t selling much (at the start), but we would only buy, like, pasta machines and equipment as we could afford them, so it was slow growth but it was controlled. I think that was what really helped us.”

    Even now, they are careful. Cersosimo, who is charge of the numbers, noted that it’s challenging because the cost of goods have gone up, as has the cost of payroll. And they can’t raise prices too much because customers have their own price line.

    Creating the cuisine

    There was a learning curve for Castanho when he started cooking to-go meals. He didn’t want the food to taste like leftovers a day after being made in a restaurant. He instead wanted it to taste as if it were just cooked fresh at a restaurant. Some of that involved undercooking at times and not plating things when they’re very hot.

    Castanho said that ideas for new dishes come from everywhere — whether he is inspired by his travels or by food he really likes at a restaurant, or by someone asking him about a dish they’ve eaten. Something on social media or in a magazine might prompt him, too. Castanho makes the dish his own, changing various elements.

    “We’ve developed many, many different recipes, thousands of them,” he said.

    And while the business is called Pasta Vita, implying Italian cuisine, the store’s offerings have featured all sorts of dishes, from Asian to North African.

    Cersosimo said Pasta Vita employees test everything.

    “So if Chef Lou wants to make something new, we try it first. And if we think it needs something or doesn’t seem quite right, he tweaks it. He’s not offended. … He makes it over.”

    A love of food

    Castanho, who grew up in West Hartford, said his father and mother were both wonderful cooks. His parents were from Portugal, and his father worked in a café there for 20-25 years; he was a server/bartender but he learned many different recipes. Lou got interested in cooking at a young age and, by high school, knew he wanted to be a chef. When he was a junior, he got a job at Hartford Hospital, where the recipes were all from-scratch at the time.

    Lou’s son, Christian, is following in his footsteps. He graduated from the Culinary Institute two years ago and is now working in the kitchen at Pasta Vita.

    Meanwhile, Cersosimo, who is a Hartford native but has lived on the shoreline for 50 years, grew up in an Italian home where they made sauce and pasta. His grandfather was “a wonderful, wonderful cook” who used to make homemade ravioli. In fact, the grandfather was allowed to come into America from Italy because he was sponsored by a group of men who had him come over to be their chef, at age 16.

    “I grew up really enjoying fresh-made, really good food,” Cersosimo said.

    Sun partnership

    In 2015, Pasta Vita partnered with the Mohegan Holding Co., the Mohegan Tribe’s nongaming arm, to establish Pasta Vita at Mohegan Sun. The result was two outlets at the Sun and several others around the state.

    Pasta Vita provided the Sun with its recipes, and employees could train at the Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook. The food for those other outlets was all made in Wethersfield.

    At the time, one of the Sun’s objectives was to help make small businesses grow, Cersosimo recalled; in case the casino business didn’t do well, the work with small businesses could help out financially.

    Eventually, though, with the casino business having grown stronger and the Sun wanting to concentrate on that, Cersosimo said, “The objectives changed and the personnel who ran the Mohegan Sun changed … Small businesses like ours didn’t make sense anymore.”

    In July of 2023, the Pasta Vita stores at the Sun and in Avon, South Windsor and Wethersfield closed.

    The original Pasta Vita in Old Saybrook has remained open, with business continuing to boom.

    ‘A wonderful business’

    Cersosimo said he stays up nights trying to ensure Pasta Vita remains profitable so it can continue to have the best workers it can possibly get.

    He and Castanho said from the beginning that if they did well, they’d give back. And they have. Cersomino noted that they sponsor shows at area organizations like Goodspeed, the Kate, the Ivoryton Playhouse, and Musical Masterworks, and donate to schools, historical societies and libraries.

    “After all those years, I’m still very excited whenever I see a customer come in because I remember when there were no customers,” Cersosimo said. “It’s been a wonderful business.”

    If you go

    What: Pasta Vita

    Where: 225 Elm St., Old Saybrook

    Hours: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sat., and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.

    Contact: pastavita.com, (860) 395-1452

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